Power-assisted learning? Exhibiting, interpreting and teaching on technology in the twentieth-century industrial city

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: School of Medical Sciences


This studentship will explore how devices such as model apparatus, pilot plants and showpiece demonstrations were used to explain and interpret technology in the twentieth century. Such devices were developed or borrowed for a variety of purposes which have often overlapped: formal technical education; informal learning in museums and science centres; preservation of industrial heritage; promotion of current and future industrial opportunities; and popular entertainment. All of these approaches have influenced the aims and opportunities of collection, interpretation and display, and the project will seek lessons in the outcomes of past practice for future engagement at the collaborative partner, the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) in Manchester, and in museums more generally.

The study will focus on Manchester and its surrounding region. It will address three interconnected cases: the work of the city's municipal Technical School, whose vocationally focused courses and applied research employed a wide range of demonstration and test equipment; the education and training organised by major manufacturing and engineering firms in the area; and the development of MSI's forerunner, opened in 1969 as the Manchester Museum of Science and Technology and largely an outgrowth of the Technical School's successor, the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). The early Museum was strongly inspired by initiatives to collect and memorialise the disappearing industrial heritage of North West England, but it was also a response to the national agenda for informal science education, conceived of as a rival to the London Science Museum as part of a broader agenda to promote Manchester's civic status.

This historical investigation will provide context and sources of inspiration for MSI's ongoing programme of gallery developments, in particular the planned refresh of the Power Hall gallery (projected 2019-2020), noted for its working engines and powered machinery.

The main proposed research questions are as follows:

* What has been the role of objects and material culture in fostering learning on technical topics? Did Manchester's unrivalled position as the hub of a diverse production culture for plant and instrumentation give it unique educational opportunities? How did formal and informal educators use scale models and pilot plants, decommissioned equipment, working environments, illustrations, demonstrations and mock-ups to support their work?

* What are the options in dealing with mechanised artefacts that can be worked for display, such as model steam engines? What approaches have past exhibitors taken to the trade-off between conserving the historic form of an object (by avoiding subjecting it to wear) and maintaining its historic function (by running it for display)? What attitudes have exhibitors and their audiences taken to the use of replicas and the importance of authenticity?

* What can we learn by considering an expanded definition of "technical education", going beyond the traditional focus on formal classroom- and workshop-based study to consider the roles of on-the-job training, self-education and informal learning in an industrial city?

* How far can we establish who were the intended and actual audiences for formal or informal learning on technical topics, and how they responded?

* What lessons can this history offer for Manchester's self-presentation as a city with a distinct scientific and technological identity and agenda today?


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Description International Placement Scheme
Amount £4,465 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/S00100X/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2019 
End 07/2019
Description Curatorial Placement, Science and Industry Museum 
Organisation Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Funded by the AHRC's Student Development Fund, I spent six months as a researcher with the curatorial team at the Science and Industry Museum. During this time, I did research into the objects of the museum's Power Hall, which was undergoing redevelopment at the time. My research fed into the gallery narratives and interpretation of the newly redeveloped gallery.
Collaborator Contribution This collaboration allowed me to gain valuable experience of doing object-based research in a museum environment, and the curatorial team at the Science and Industry Museum worked hard to ensure that I was learning valuable curatorial skills. This will help me produce good object-based research in the future, either as an academic or an in alt-academic career.
Impact This collaboration produced research on which the museum's new interpretation will be based, and revealed new narratives around some of the objects in their collection. I also attended working group meetings for the Power Hall redevelopment, helping make decisions around key features of the new gallery.
Start Year 2018
Description Exhibition, Manchester Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An exhibition about scientist James Joule, which I curated in partnership with the Science and Industry Museum as part of Manchester Science Festival. The exhibition was held at Manchester Central Library in order to fulfil the Science Festival's goal of bringing science education to publics who may not usually seek it out. The exhibition ran from October 2018 to January 2019. Contacts at Manchester Central Library reported good engagement with the exhibition, and the project strengthened ties between the University of Manchester, the Science and Industry Museum, the Manchester Science Festival, and Manchester Central Library, with the Library keen to host future exhibitions along similar lines.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019