Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Great Fire Engine Mystery - the story

It's Good Friday - the one day in the year that the workers in the village have as holiday.

But, Chief Engineer Rab Bit and his team have to test the fire engine.

Disaster strikes as Rab is walking to the village through the woods. He steps on a rabbit trap. He drops his notebook. He manages to escape but his leg is broken. He can't organise the fire engine test.

His team do their best.

They wheel the fire engine down to the village pond. They put one end of a hose in the water. They hold the end of the other hose up towards the trees. They start pumping. Everyone comes to watch.

A great cheer goes up as the water gets to the top of the trees. The fire engine is working.

But suddenly they hear a scream. Mummy Duck comes running up. Duckling is missing. One minute he was taking his first swim in the pond. The next he was nowhere to be seen.

Whatever happened? And where is Duckling?

Crack Reading detectives are called in to look at the evidence.

Some children by the pond thought they saw something fly past. Luckily one of them has taken a video on her phone. The detectives have a good look at it.

Is that Duckling zooming past? It can't be. Duckling can't fly yet. He was only just learning to swim.

The detectives find out how the fire engine works.

Was Duckling sucked up by the fire engine? But that should be impossible. A fire strainer on the end of the hose would have stopped anything being sucked up.

They find Rab Bit's notebook where he'd dropped it by the rabbit trap. He had made a note to take the fire strainer with him.

The detectives hunt for the fire strainer. It looks very new and completely unused.

The detectives have discovered that the team forgot all about the fire strainer. Duckling must have been sucked up by the fire engine and shot out of the other end towards the trees.

They hunted high and low. Eventually they found Duckling, looking very angry, high up in a tree.

Mummy Duck was very happy.

The fire team were rather embarrassed but they never forgot the fire strainer again.

Chief Engineer Rab Bit was so grateful that he gave the detectives a medal and tickets to watch his favourite film, Tilley and the Fire Engines (1911).

The not-so-Alternate Reality

Built in 1839, the fire engine at the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading, UK was in service for over a century. It was tested on Good Fridays as that was the only day, apart from Sundays, that the people in the Norfolk village did not have to work. Testing it was a spectacle that everyone came out to view.
Privy photo courtesy the Ramsey Rural Museum Cambs

A Chief Engineer and two other men were paid a small amount to tend the engine which was last used on a call to a privy fire in 1930.

The village decided it was too expensive to keep the fire engine in the 1930s but during the Second World War it was positioned by a farm pond in case incendiary bombs hit the hay ricks.

Further information about the fire engine is in the Museum of English Rural Life catalogue'51/410'

Just as we were setting-up the trail in the Museum, Fred the Conservator showed us a wonderful Huntley & Palmer biscuit tin. Dating from the 1890s, the tin depicts a steam-driven fire-engine drawn by two horses, with lively scenes of fire fighting. Fred kindly put it in the horse-vet display case near the fire-engine. Fantastic real-time museum display design! Huntley & Palmers was a central part of Reading life in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Alfred Palmer built 'East Thorpe' (Later St Andrews Hall) which now houses the Museum's extensive archives.

Fred also found a video showing a fire engine like the one in the MERL being pulled by a horse in the Netherlands.

and there's another Tilley engine being demonstrated in New Zealand at

Friday, 9 March 2012

Getting to grips with the heritage trail

 iMuse in Reading is creating a small exhibition to accompany The Friends' London Road Campus Heritage Trail (Sunday 25 March 2012 - all welcome). After a morning going through the photos we already have from The Friends' and Women's Club previous mini exhibitions plus those in the UMASCS (University Museum and Archives and Special Collections Services) archive at the Museum, we had to check out where a couple of them were actually taken
(original (c) University of Reading)
Here the correct lodge is pinned down through its unusual decoration. Another photo, claimed to be from Shinfield on an official University postcard (not the Museum's fault!), was found to come from the old Dairy immediately outside the Museum building itself. Verified by counting bricks and position of drainpipes. A good mark for iMuse's heritage sleuthing if not a very glamorous task.
Now we have to decide how to display - on separate exhibition boards and/or overlaid on the diagram of the new use for the site and/or on a diagram of the old site layout and/or via Flickr, Pinterest, Tumblr, Historypin. How best to arrange for display on iPads or visitors' phones? How much text/audio to add? Should we trial doing 'proper' audio descriptions? How to keep the photos for another time?

What will work best in the reception area for the Sunday event? Will the University Court the next day be in the same place? How can we support the lightweight, cardboard display as the walls aren't totally flat (there's a piece of panelling on one, window halfway up on the other).

For an IT based programme, iMuse people are spending a lot of time with double-sided sticky-tape and printing out the basic photos for the exhibition... and it went 3D when the iMuse trolley was delivered - flatpacked.

Next week we'll get back to digital....

How many women does it take to assemble a flatpack? It was the third one who cracked and asked a man for a set of screwdrivers...

Friday, 2 March 2012

What are we all here for anyway? - Part 2

What's imuse trying to achieve? Part 1 is at Here's some more thoughts.

We picked up interesting ideas from Museum Computer Network conference, Atlanta, November 2011 especially from Nettrice's workshop on Alternate Reality Games - ways of encouraging visitors and museum interaction. Some of those methods were used in the mini [cheese and cheesey] ARG at half-term.

Now we have the book Museums at Play - Games, Interaction and Learning (ed Beale, Museumsetc, 2011). As we look more closely at what we are trying to achieve, it seems worth jotting down bits as we go along so we remember them. The very first sentence was worth the expense! It starts

      'Interactivity, curiosity, challenge, cooperation, choice, creativity, discovery, failure'

That sums up (rather more succinctly than in what imuse is trying to enable.

OK, we are working within some definite constraints. imuse is a project being run by a tiny charity - we are not ourselves a museum. The Charity's aim is to find ways that inclusion can be increased for those with communications disabilities using IT [our Charity's strapline is 'IT helping inclusion']. imuse is exploring systems that enable 'interactivity, curiosity, challenge, cooperation, choice, creativity, discovery, failure [well, and success!]' in the context of: small and moderate sized museums that don't have dedicated IT teams or much (if any) spare cash for trying new things or buying equipment.

Our plan (to 1Q13) is to try out ideas in 'several' (currently defined as 'three') museums. If things look promising (i.e inclusion increased) we aim to explore the possibility for setting up a sustainable advisory service.

We are an 'infrastructure' project. That is, we look at how museums and their visitors can put in place systems which aid inclusion, particularly using IT. It is then up to the museums and visitors how they use those systems towards their own aims. Taking the analogy for physical access, a consultant may advise a museum on where to put lifts, toilets, the height of the reception desk, space around objects. The consultant will have done a good job if more people can get into  and move around the museum. Why the visitor wants to do this and why the museum wants them to do it are different matters, will change over time way after the consultant has gone and will have many facets.

For example, one visitor may want to bring her grandchildren somewhere fun for a holiday outing where they can do things together, another may want to study a specific museum collection. The museum may have funding to help local schools with part of the national curriculum, or  have an aim to increase volunteering. The access consultant may have been apprised of some of these at the start of his project, but cannot know them all because things change. Those outcomes are not his speciality. Getting people in and moving around is. After that it's up to visitors and the museum whether they use the systems for having fun, running a cocktail reception, formal learning, somewhere to go on a wet Sunday.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Great Reading Cheese Mystery - Part 5 more observations from half-term

Lorna noted these comments made during the Great Reading Cheese Mystery trial at the Museum of English Rural Life.

"best trail I've ever done at a museum"

"it was really fun and I liked it a lot" (6 year old)

"it was fun but someone was sitting on the basket at clue 6"

"it was fun but hard to find the information" -older girl 11/12ish

"that was really, really good fun"

"that was just excellent"

And here are some observations:

- one person did the entire trail without returning to scan the clues (this was an adult who said they had a child, although the child wasn't actually seen at any point)

- observation from adult who took two children round separately (i.e. adult went round trail twice) commented that they 'got bored of reading the parents' sheet and gave up reading it after struggling through the first paragraph.' they felt 'it took the enjoyment away from the trail' and that they 'enjoyed and learnt a lot more from just reading and using the detectives report to communicate with the children'. [Further observation from Annette - most parents seemed to have enough to cope with without taking a parents' sheet. We printed 25 and probably got rid of no more than a dozen (though at least 84 adults took children round. The more useful place for them was probably for those who stayed to talk further about Reading and cheese - not many but enough to make it worthwhile - though most times I forgot there was a sheet they might find interesting post the trail. Speculating I would say the sheet looked too serious and 'school like' for what was meant to be a fun, shared half term activity encouraging communication].

- after a while clues began to curl and the inigma machine failed to recognise them

- some clues were found ripped up [very carefully, along the dividing lines and put back in the clue basket - making it difficult to see in passing that the stock of clues was running low. This was next to the tinies' model farm play-area so may have been a 2 year old vandal from there rather than a registered detective. Annette has kept the one that was actually chewed as a souvenir].

- as far as our records go, only one parent-child set started the trail but did not finish it - in fact stopped after going to the first clue site, saying the game was too difficult for the 6 year old and the child did not want to continue. More support was offered but not accepted.

- a parent and child were doing the rat trail and came and asked if I knew where the last rat was. I explained that Judith at the desk had a help sheet. As Judith was on the phone and there was a slight queue. I offered to have a look at their clipboard and see if I could remember where the last one they were looking for was. This led to me getting the rat trail up on the iPad [this is on the Open University's free Our Story app] and talking the child through each slide on there, to see if they had found the rat pictured. This helped them find the rat they had missed, without being too obvious about where it was. They then went off to find said rat and later when undertaking the cheese mystery, thanked me for the help in finding it. Not strictly cheese mystery but I thought it was a good thing to note and they seemed to quite enjoy looking at the rats on the iPad. They also got correct names for objects of where the rats where hidden when going through them on the iPad. (as in the object names of where they found the rats were slightly incorrect in the first instance)

-  there seem to be 2 ways of viewing the Mystery - one as a quest and other as getting round the museum. A lot of children saw it as a quest-like adventure whereas for parents/grandparents etc that went round with younger ones, it was more of a different way of getting around the museum. [we had deliberately designed it so the groups had to go through a substantial part of the museum for three clues, and for another had to go in the opposite direction to the temporary exhibition which people often said they had not realised was there].

- cheese making part of the trail - a lot of people missed the full content of this part of the trail and the detectives' report came to the bottom of the page part way through and therefore this led to them missing the need to turn over the page. Maybe a P.T.O would have been helpful here [we tried to get more of a 'flow' about the actual cheese making process at one clue stop. This meant changing gear to look at 3 objects and as it coincided with having to turn the page on the detective report, a lot did not manage to do all of this. By contrast, a few families looked really closely, lead poisoning being a topic which one mother and child had discussed and the child really interested in e.g.].

- one child asked to do it again - completed it very quickly

- 'but we can find it' - two girls [?] when asked if they knew what a milk float was - a positive can-do attitude as despite saying no they didn't know what it was they weren't fazed at all and declared as it says that 'we can find it!'

- Lady (grandparent) was going to tell the story of smelling the cheese to others as she found it very humorous and obviously a must-tell to her friends!

- Reading cheese press - thought it was from Dorset [it was - where it was made. Quite a lot of people didn't take the extra step to read the old museum label to find where it had been used. - and did a label disappear during the week? This was another 'change of gear' in terms of observation which many didn't manage]