Co-producing gallery games

Rachel Webster and David Gelsthorpe, 15.05.2018
Case study from Manchester Museum
Manchester Museum is a playful museum; we encourage gallery-based play and we host events such as "science busking "(quick-fire science demonstrations and tricks).

While popular, these sometimes have little relevance to the displays. We wanted to create some activities that link with our natural history displays. We decided to co-produce games with students, who wanted to gain experience of science communication and who brought fresh ideas and enthusiasm for the subject.

The theme of ecology is a perfect fit with playing games as it lends itself to shorter, ad-hoc family activities. The project was funded with a grant of £1,700 from the British Ecological Society, which covered workshop expenses, the purchase of games and supplies, and the creation of the final product.

We ran four workshops with a group of 20 students. We introduced them to the project aims and the practicalities of working in the gallery, and they led activities and discussions about ecology.

The students began by playing classic family games such as battleships, snap and jigsaws. Existing games were used as a starting point as we wanted the students to focus on exploring ecology rather than inventing new games. Family games are also familiar to the general public, limiting barriers to participation and allowing conversation to focus on the ecological theme

We envisaged the museum’s role as helping students understand the challenges of working with visitors. However, the students were really good at analysing how games work and what the visitors would find fun, so in reality our main contribution was maintaining their focus on ecology as the student participants were very enthusiastic about a variety of science topics.  

The final products were customised games that had ecological ideas mapped onto them. These included:

  • Snakes and Ladders, with positive and negative factors for marine turtles.
  • Jenga, where each block was a different species and players recorded what caused ecosystem collapse.
  • Happy Families, where players collected the plants and animals that represented their ecosystem such as a tropical rainforest.

The student group now has a strong sense of ownership and will lead on the delivery of the games, bringing their enthusiasm to the visitors in the gallery.

Rachel Webster is the curator of Botany and David Gelsthorpe is curator of earth sciences at Manchester Museum