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By Jonathan Long on

Engaging museum audiences with coding and computing in object rich galleries

Jonathan Long shares his experience and challenges of developing an activity trail for the Science Museum to engage audiences with coding and computing.

Computers are used in almost every area of our modern life, from the alarms that wake us up to planning our route to work to processing payments and keeping us entertained, computers strongly influence the world around us. Without someone writing a set of instructions for those computers to follow they would not be able to do anything…and writing those instructions is coding.

Both computing and coding are subjects which are becoming a focus for many groups visiting the Science Museum in London. So, to support group leaders to maximize this learning opportunity, we decided to create a trail around these themes to support young people, aged 7-14, to explore the world of coding through the objects in our museum.

Creating an activity trail about coding…

Across the Science Museum Group, we create activity trails to inspire and support self-led experiences around our museums. They encourage visitors to use skills and behaviors such as observation, creativity, discussion and communication as they explore museum galleries and objects.

Trails, like the Marvels of Medicine activity trail which explores the Medicine: The Welcome Galleries and our Math’s activity trial which is based in the Mathematics: Winton Gallery, take inspiration from a gallery themes and content.

Choosing objects that would engage and connect people with coDING

When it came to finding suitable objects in the museum, one of the obvious places to start looking was our Information Age Gallery, which explores more than 200 years of innovation in information technologies. In this gallery we had a vast choice of digital and communication technologies, from the first BBC radio broadcast in 1897 to the emergence of digital TV, at our disposal.

From all the objects on display, we only wanted six for the final trail. So, what type of objects could be considered?

The objects needed three key things – to have a strong link to coding, be visually interest, and have a story that would be relevant and resonate with our visitors.

Our initial list of potential objects was long and far more than the six objects we needed in for the trail. Some objects were ruled out due to logistical issues, such as them being hard to find or were in an area of the gallery where there was not enough space for a group of people to gather around.

More were dropped because, even though they were interesting to us and linked to our adult lives and experiences, the world of computing and computers has changed so quickly that these objects did not reflect the way young people experienced and interacted with them.

A good example of this was the gold-plated BBC microcomputer. This computer would draw out nostalgia in many adult visitors, but is a far cry from what computers look like today. Many of us, over the age of 30, may remember learning about coding on these machines when we were at school, but our younger audiences who would have grown up with Raspberry-PI and BBC micro bit.


Once we had identified, and narrowed down, potential feature objects, we needed to design some activities which would show how coding lies behind each of them.

These activities are designed to lead visitors through the space and invite them to find specific objects to discover more about the stories and personalities behind them while completing related challenges.

There are six core types of challenges and activities that we use in our trails:

  • TRY THIS… This could be a group task, a physical challenge, a mini competition, something to draw, etc.
  • LOOK CLOSER… An observation challenge.
  • IMAGINE… Invite people to picture themselves doing something or to think about an idea.
  • TALK/THINK ABOUT… Questions that encourage people to think about or talk with each other about an interesting aspect of the topic.
  • EXPLORE MORE… An activity that can be done back at home or school or in another place in the museum.


As we started to work to develop the activities, we realised that whilst coding might be behind how each of our chosen objects worked, coding is not something that can be seen – it is not something that is ‘displayed’ in our museum. Coding is hidden inside the things it controls – and is dormant in a static museum object.

Code, and the skills of coding, may be hidden from sight, we knew that we can still provide people with a lens through which they could see how coding helps them in their everyday lives.

We began to question how, or even if it is possible, to explore an abstract, and seemingly invisible idea such as coding in an object rich environment – and still make it fun and engaging?

Up until this point of development we had envisioned we were making a coding trail but, in order to reflect a broader messaging of the use and operations of computers, we pivoted to making it a ‘computing trail’.

SO, What has coMPUTING ever done for us?

Computing, in an educational context, is used as an umbrella term. The core of computing is computer science, which is the teaching of how computer systems work. This overarching term encompasses all aspects of coding, but allows us to see how we interact with countless bits of technology throughout the day that are coded to make our lives easier, safer, and more fun!

Whilst our original object selection were great examples of applications of coding, we went back and reviewed those choices again and considered what areas of people’s lives are most influenced by computing?

The objects we picked were…

  • Sony PlayStation3 games console… to highlight how computing is used for our leisure and entertainment.
  • Google Maps trike… to show how computing is helping us to navigate the world around us.
  • Replica Telstar 1 satellite… to illustrate how computing and coding transmits information across the world.
  • Electronic storm surge modelling machine… how computing helps us make predictions
  • Atlas supercomputer… to demonstrate how computer have helped society to solve problems quickly.
  • Sharp J-SH04 phone… to show how computing has improved how we stay connected with each other with ever-changing mobile phones.

Selecting these objects and themes made it much easier to develop activities which would allow people to recognise how coding and computing shapes our modern life.

A final reflection…

Computing is relative new topic for our museums, especially when compared to other areas of our collection such as mathematics or flight.

Despite this, we should not be daunted by talking about computing in object rich galleries. Our phones are a computer, our tv’s are a computer, even our electric toothbrushes are now a computer… Computers are used in shopping, medicine, entertainment and business, there are not many areas of life where computers don’t have an active role to play.

In the journey of creating this trail and engaging audiences with a new subject, we are reminded how sometimes when things are not coming together,  a simple change of focus can make all the difference.

By taking some time to reflect on what we want to say and not being afraid to alter our ideas and view point we and create something special.

You can seethe final Computing Activity trail here.

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