Digital maker residency

University of Cambridge Museums

Digital making involves ‘learning about technology through making with it’. (Young Digital Makers, Nesta, 2015) It brings together art and technology and provides opportunities to create. The University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) Digital Maker Residency ran between January and March 2018. The residency was designed in partnership with a digital engagement specialist and a group of museum educators as a piece of practitioner research exploring the potential of digital making in museums.

The project team were interested in finding out how we could support the development of skills and confidence to empower people to make, design and use digital technologies. We wanted to explore the relationship between digital technology and traditional artistic and creative processes. We also had a subsidiary question about how inter-disciplinary projects of this kind might extend and develop our own professional practice as museum educators and how we could develop new skills, processes and ways of working across departments.

Image courtesy of University of Cambridge Museums.

Why digital making?

We have been thinking about how to provide opportunities for digital making at the UCM for some time. One of the major barriers us as educators was our own lack of expertise. However, I had slowly come to realise the parallels between the maker movement and my own creative arts practice. At the Culture 24 Lets Get Real Conference which I attended in March 2017, Oliver Quinlan from Raspberry Pi made a powerful analogy between new digital tools and more familiar resources educators work with every day to encourage creative responses. Oliver gave the example of the sand and water tray in Early Years settings. Adults and children play alongside one another to explore the properties of the materials, experiment with change, make structures and tunnels and learn about physics. Practitioners facilitate this learning every day regardless of whether or not they are trained scientists. Quinlan urged us to have the same approach with digital making. As practitioners we just need to be interested, ask questions and learn alongside them. We do not need to be experts, just to provide opportunities to explore. I also had the opportunity to try out digital in a pop up makerspace facilitated by Mark Shillitoe and Professor Jackie Marsh from the MakeEY Project. This European project explores digital literacy and creativity in the Early Years and is doing some extremely exciting and innovative work in the both formal and informal settings. I had the chance to make my own mini ‘brushbot’ and was inspired by meeting other educators and artists.

Planning the residency and recruiting our digital maker

I worked closely with Ina Pruegel, a Digital Engagement Specialist to plan the residency and design a logic model outlining our objectives and thinking about the different outcomes we hoped for. This helped us to define our lines of enquiry and think about how to document the project. The project followed a methodology where research is seen to be a way of ‘thinking-by-doing.’ Out approach has been informed by the work of Emily Pringle at Tate, as described below:

So, how does enquiry through practice work? Firstly, questions are central alongside a willingness to explore and test ideas and knowledge, individually, as a team and in conjunction with participants in a programme and/or the visitors to the museum.

We hoped that by working together to design and test a new programme we would be able to generate new understandings about the work by doing it. This aligns with conceptions of practice based and practice led research and with action research. We documented the project by collecting photographs, field notes, children’s artwork, collecting questionnaire data from UCM staff, teachers and children and interviewing the digital maker after the project.

Image courtesy of University of Cambridge Museums.

We reached out to a community workshop in Cambridge called Makespace, who agreed to partner with us on the project and provide practical support and access to their creative spaces. The project was funded from our UCM digital, schools and families budgets. Our next task was to find a digital maker. We put out an open call and circulated details through different channels, e.g. artist and maker networks, social media, as well as the Museums Computer GroupGEM and through Makespace. We had lots of interest in the residency and interviewed some very talented artists and makers from across the UK. We were very luck to find Katy Marshall, a digital artist, maker and tech educator based in Cambridge.

Image courtesy of University of Cambridge Museums.

What we did

The residency enabled us to experiment with different materials, tools, and technologies, taking the museums and collections as inspiration. We programmed several different types of events to try and make the most of the time Katy spent with us and to explore a variety of formats and audiences.

Activities included:

  • Family workshops at The Fitzwilliam Museum and The Museum of Zoology
  • Schools workshops at The Fitzwilliam Museum and the Cambridge Makespace
  • Pop-up maker activities for children and adults at The Fitzwilliam Museum, The Museum of Classical Archaeology, Whipple Museum of the History of Science and The Museum of Zoology
  • Staff introductory sessions and training at Makespace on Digital Making, 3D printing and laser cutting

Outcomes: Children and young people

One of the aims of the UCM Digital Maker Residency was to develop a new strand of programming around STEM and digital engagement. The long list of workshops and activities we ran and the number of museum staff, teachers and young people who took part in digital making activities are evidence that this aim was met. The response to both the workshops was extremely positive. All the schools and families workshops were fully booked within a few hours of being advertised and had long waiting lists. This demonstrated a high demand for activities of this kind within our local area. The photos we took at the workshops show children deeply engaged in making, laughing, talking and listening to one another intently. In the questionnaire responses, the majority of children agreed or strongly agreed that they had fun at the workshops and that they had tried something new.

Qualitative feedback indicated that participants enjoyed the workshops for a variety of different reasons. It is interesting to see that feedback often referred to both specific objects from the museum collections and the digital making activity. This shows how important it is to make clear links between the two. It could be that enjoyment and excitement for one activity encouraged participation in the other. Several of the responses to the schools workshop indicated that they would like to come back and ‘explore more of the museum.’ Children seemed to enjoy a variety of different aspects of the experience as their responses to the question ‘What did you enjoy the most?’ demonstrates:

Looking at pictures because I learnt new things

The armour because it looked shiny

The military cross- it’s fascinating

Designing the message because I got to know about the hoard

It’s really good for learning about the past

This feedback indicates that the digital making activities did encourage children to interpret, experience and respond to the exhibitions and collections. These are important findings as they demonstrate the potential of digital making activities to excite, inspire and engage children in museum collections.

Image courtesy of University of Cambridge Museums.

‘Fun, exciting and challenging’: Solving difficult problems

In all of the workshops participants had to work hard to come up with their own creative solutions, often learning alongside parents, teachers and museum educators to develop new skills. It was also interesting that on several evaluation forms children wrote that they were both frustrated and excited by the challenge of the activities. However, the majority of feedback from both the schools and families workshops indicated that this was a positive experience:

Feedback from schools workshops

It gets your brain working and it’s really fun.

It is brilliant and gets you working.

Fun, exciting and challenging.

Feedback from ‘Codebreakers’ family workshop: What did you enjoy the most?

Making it, because it was challenging.

What did you enjoy the least?

The problems – they were too challenging.

This was also seen by the teachers and museum educators to be a very positive outcome.

Image courtesy of University of Cambridge Museums.

Challenges

Feedback from several of the teachers and educators involved commented on the number of adults involved in the session and how crucial this was to the success of the workshop. The adult support was essential, as was some basic knowledge of how the microbit worked. The most successful workshops were towards the end of the residency when the project team had been able to spend time playing with the equipment and had a basic understanding of how it worked. At the first workshops none of us had used a makey makey before and so we looked to the Digital Maker for support every time something went wrong. However, the final workshop at The Fitzwilliam Museum ‘Making Sense’ was run by museum educators and volunteers who had been new to digital making at the start of the residency. This shows how much their confidence and knowledge had developed as a result of the programme. This feedback from one of the museum educators describes how this process was for them,

I was full of trepidation before the session because of my own lack of skills in this area, but the children’s enthusiasm, patience, persistence and kindness was an absolute joy to share in. I was also concerned that the activities seemed quite far removed from the issues around the museum collections, but I came to see that we could make these connections together – whether these were about the creative process, the trials of working with materials experimentally, or practical issues around access and communication that we deal with on a daily basis. Thanks to everyone involved for showing me these possibilities.

Museum educator feedback

Impact on practice and programmes

The residency did create opportunities for creative exchange between museums and other partners and has helped us to develop ideas for new sessions for children and young people at UCM. Our programmes next year already include plans for more digital sessions.

Another unforeseen and positive outcome has been the inter-disciplinary conversations the residency has stimulated about technology and digital making across the museums. The introductory sessions at Makespace, providing training in digital making, 3D printing and laser cutting brought together people working in many different departments and museums to share expertise and ideas. We hope that this will be a starting point for future projects and collaborations as we continue to explore digital technology and making for at UCM through not only our learning programmes but also within our exhibitions, conservation work and displays.

We are in the process of pulling together our end of project report. If you would like a copy or would like to know more about the project please do get in touch at kjr21@cam.ac.uk.

With special thanks to the UCM team and colleagues at The Fitzwilliam Museum, The Museum of Classical Archaeology, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, The Museum of Zoology and makespace.

Dr. Kate Noble, Education Officer
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 
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