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By Maxwell Hamilton on

Talking textiles

In the second of two posts, Maxwell Hamilton explores how a science capital approach helped to transform visitor interactions in the newly refurbished Textiles Gallery, at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester.

An Explainer delivering the ‘Weavers Wanted’ show on gallery.

Before the refresh, the Textile Gallery’s working machinery demonstrations were the main point of entry and engagement for many families. These demonstrations, whilst content rich, were aimed at an older audience and weren’t targeted to families needs.

How did we update our offer for family audiences?

After the refresh, we changed two of our daily demonstrations to our family friendly ‘Weavers Wanted’ show. The ‘Weavers Wanted’ show is a lively demonstration themed around a group of new apprentices joining the mill. Facilitated by our Explainers, the show reveals the different roles that the apprentices might go on to do. Focussing on the skills people used in the mill helps visitors recognise the wide range of skills involved in STEM related work and, during the show, visitors get to develop these skills themselves.

“There is a real focus on the interaction between the audience and the Explainer in ‘Weavers Wanted’. The audience is taught a new skill by the Explainer and then encouraged to use it throughout the show.  During the show the Explainer helps the audience recognise that they have, and use, a wide range of STEM skills.”

Pippi Carty-Hornsby, Explainer Team Leader

As well as making the most of live, facilitated demonstrations, we wanted the gallery to provide a shared family learning experience. The gallery includes conversation prompts to get people talking, and invites visitors to contribute their own experiences and opinions.

How do we help visitors relate to, and engage with, Manchester’s textiles history?

Visitors in the 'Conversation Space' interacting with a collection of handling objects.

Perhaps, most excitingly, the refresh included the creation of a flexible participatory space designed to host a variety of activities, from drop-in workshops to standalone displays and self-led reflective activities. The ‘Conversation Space’s’ facilitates exchanges between audiences, Explainers and collaborators as we explore changing themes that link our lives today to the seismic shifts of the industrial revolution. By having a varied programme of activities in this space, we can help visitors recognise and explore the STEM skills that they already possess, and help them to realise the relevance of these skills to their everyday lives.

“The responsive and flexible nature of the Conversation Space is a fantastic resource that has allowed us to start a dialogue, both with our visitors and many different groups and organisations across Manchester who can bring fresh and unexpected perspectives on our collection.”

Jenny Mutch, Contemporary Science Programme Producer

Weaving a science capital approach throughout the Textiles Gallery has resulted in a gallery which is open to more visitors than ever. Alongside showcasing how the cotton mills left a lasting impact on Manchester, the refreshed gallery enables our audiences to engage with STEM and the possibilities it presents for Manchester’s bright future.

Science capital informed interactions with our visitors highlight and develop the STEM skills they bring to the museum, and give them the confidence that they can ‘do’ STEM. The Conversation Space’s flexibility and evolving programme offers new content to returning visitors, keeping the experience relevant. It also provides the opportunity for visitors to be exposed to a wide range of STEM professionals, helping widen the perception of people who do STEM.

By recognising and responding to current and historic trends in science and society, we have been able to build upon the STEM knowledge, skills, and attitudes of our diverse audience and get them ‘talking textiles’. If you haven’t already, check out my first post which shares how the science engagement toolkit helped to inform the galleries physical aspects.

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