Methodologies of Play: Digital Interpretation and Steam Engine Science

Using science capital as a conceptual lens to develop and evaluate family-friendly, digital interpretation prototypes for the Power Hall gallery at the Science and Industry Museum. 


Partner overview

The Science and Industry Museum is devoted to inspiring visitors through ideas that change the world, from the Industrial Revolution to today. The museum shows how innovations in science, technology and industry, many of which happened in Manchester, continue to shape our world today. The museum is part of the wider Science Museum Group and exhibits extensive displays on the themes of textiles, transport, power, communications, computing and much more. The Science Museum Group have comprehensive audience research data as well as a talented and experienced team of museum professionals, all of which help to support and steer the direction of this research. 

Project background

The Power Hall gallery houses Europe’s largest collection of 19th and early 20th-century working steam engines. The Power Hall is due to reopen in 2023 and will be a multi-sensory experience, full of the sounds of these huge machines, the whistle and smell of steam and the incredible personal stories that are behind them. It will show how Manchester provided the power that changed the city and the world — from the way we worked and travelled to the consumer society we live in. 

The results of an evaluation of the previous exhibition found the Power Hall to be too static, text heavy and lacking in hands-on experiences. The team also identified that more visual support was needed in the interpretation and the tone of the new gallery should be more personal and straightforward. 

The research for this CDA looks at how digital techniques can be used to engage and empower families in the Power Hall space. The museum is especially interested in digital interpretation methods that could help to elicit conversations between visiting families/groups and how the use of links to everyday relevance may help to support this.  


Research team

  • Lead Researcher: Christina Buckingham, School of Arts and Media, Salford University. 
  • Academic Supervisor: Dr Toni Sant, Digital Curation, University of Salford, School of Arts, Media & Creative Technology.


Research approach

The Research Team are addressing the problem through a series of rapid prototype developments which aim to challenge visitors’ perception of steam engine science. Our goal is to provide an introduction to engineering concepts that are inclusive and accessible to a family audience. They will investigate, and iteratively progress, a variety of digitally enhanced approaches that could be potential interpretation solutions for the Power Hall gallery and evaluate their comparative success through a science capital lens. Centrally, the study will explore techniques that encourage positive intergenerational conversations and ‘science talk’ between visitor groups, which will provide an indication of engagement levels and evidence a sense of visitor connection with the exhibition content. 

The primary methodology for data collection and the analysis of the developed prototypes will take the form of a unique discourse analysis framework/scoring system, followed by informal questioning to enable a comparison of the various approaches. 


Expected outcomes

This research will explore and test a range of possible avenues of interpretation for the Power Hall exhibition before the commitment of having to commission external developers which is usually costly, time-intensive and restrictive. The study aims to demonstrate how rapid prototyping techniques and a new creative consultation process could take place which puts visitors at the forefront of the process.  

This research will test out a new evaluation scoring system, directed toward recording the prevalence of science talk between families and groups. It is hoped that this technique will help to streamline the audience evaluation processes and enable the comparison of a wide variety of interpretation approaches with the same tool. In addition, the scoring system could provide the opportunity to put a high value on raw and arguably, more authentic responses to heritage interpretation in terms of personal connections and meaning-making. 

From a training point of view, this CDA will allow the researcher to become immersed in the ecosystem of a large and forward-thinking heritage organisation, supporting Christina’s theoretical knowledge and understanding of interpretation design, heritage engagement and their relation to science capital principles.