Refloating the Ark


I’m very pleased to be back at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery and to be involved once more in Collections in the Landscape. I’d only been at my desk for a couple of days last week when I was whisked away to attend a conference hosted by Manchester Museum.  Refloating the Ark explored the role natural history collections can play in engaging the public with environmental issues, and also how they can contribute to, and attract, new research.

Collections in the Landscape is all about connecting people with museum collections and the Derbyshire landscape. We want to foster a sense of place, and an appreciation and pride in our heritage. Speakers at the conference spoke of ‘Nature Connectedness’, when people feel like part of a wider, natural community. There’s much to gain from this vision, and in our project we certainly do want to connect people with the environment, both the natural and man-made elements . Can we call this ‘Derbyshire Connectedness?’ Suggestions on a postcard please…


Participants explore the barrow built in the bank at Arbor Low

We got people exploring the great outdoors during the project’s development phase. In this photo some of our volunteers are enjoying the natural and archaeological features around Arbor Low.

You can find out more about what happened, who spoke, and about what, through the link below:

And you can see what everyone else thought on Twitter, #RFArk

There was simply too much to cram into a single blog post, so here’s a short list of some of the lessons learnt that were most relevant to Collections in the Landscape.

Contact with nature is good for you…and the environment

Ok, so we all know that getting out and about in the great outdoors is a good thing. But speakers at Refloating the Ark really managed to sum up the positive impact that a project like Collections in the Landscape could have.

Contact with the natural environment is good for physical and mental health, learning, and also our relationships with each other. People spending time in outdoor spaces are also more likely to hold pro-environmental views, so nature gets something out of it too.

Appeal to hearts, not just minds

Evidence shows that facts alone are not enough if you want to engage people to act, or respond to, your messages. You got to appeal to people’s love, awe or wonder for something. This approach turns a passive respect or appreciation into a more passionate, engaged experience that is more likely to provoke a response and interaction.

So understand your audience, what are their values and motivation, what will make them say, ‘wow!’?

Great objects displayed well can really help appeal to visitors love or wonder for a subject - like these specimens in Manchester Museums  Natures Library gallery.

Great objects displayed well can really help appeal to visitor’s love or wonder for a subject – like these specimens in Manchester Museum’s Nature’s Library gallery.

If you want researchers to find you, DIGITISE!

Where do we all turn when we want to find something out? The internet of course! Getting data online is a major step in attracting new research into your collections. Make your data easy to find. Speakers even mentioned examples of new, scientific discoveries that had been made by researchers exploring museum’s online data. So don’t hold back!

We’re moving towards making our own collections available online, so watch this space for future news and updates.

Volunteering, but not as we know it

Finally, the concept of museum volunteering is being transformed, and there’s lots of good practice to be found within the natural history community. Citizen Science projects provide online platforms where members of the public can create or process data in response to a research question.

A very successful example is Old Weather, in which online volunteers are asked to study digitised pages from 19th century ship’s logs and pick up reference to weather. This project has helped to improve our understanding of historic weather patterns and has extended the historic data available for climatic research. Participants help digitise and transcribe weather reports, earning points as they do so and progressing in rank from Cadet all the way up to Captain!

Example page from the OldWeather Citizen Science project

Example page from the OldWeather Citizen Science project

Lastly, I’ll take this opportunity to thank the team from Manchester Museum for being excellent hosts who kept us all topped up with food, coffee and inspiring speakers. Refloating the Ark was packed with good ideas, sensible advice and interesting case studies. The next challenge is apply all of this to Collections in the Landscape.

The spa history of Buxton, in objects

The spa history of Buxton, in objects

Every year on average 1.3 million people visit Buxton and most visitors want to know about the history of the town. Buxton is described as ‘England’s leading Spa town’ yet all that remains of this heritage are the façades of the old spa buildings. As we have mentioned in previous posts, Collections in the Landscape is about taking the museum’s collections back to the locations where they were made, bought or used and we really want to make sure that Buxton’s history, and the town’s relationship with water, is part of this. For our trial we are creating a Buxton Walking Tour app that will guide users through the different periods of Buxton’s rich and colourful history, here is a taster of what we are going to include. 

A small selection from the Buxton Coin Hoard

A small selection from the Buxton Coin Hoard

The Romans were the first to harness the natural springs of Buxton, or as it was known then Aqua Arnemetiae. Buxton was the second most important spa town in the country, after Bath (Aquae Sulis). Sadly there is almost no surviving evidence of Roman buildings in the town but in 1978 the Buxton coin hoard was discovered on the site of the Natural Mineral Baths (used to be the Tourist Information Centre – now in the Pavilion Gardens). Most of the coins are Roman and dating from 41-400 A.D., although there are a few later coins too. The Buxton coin hoard is on permanent display in the Wonders of the Peak and a few Roman coins from our collection can also be seen at Manchester Museum.

Close-up of John Speede's map of Derbyshire, 1610

Close-up of John Speede’s map of Derbyshire, 1610

 The spa history of Buxton then advances to the 1500s, when the first developments of Buxton as we know it began. The Earl of Shrewsbury, George Talbot, built The Hall (now The Old Hall) in 1550, which would later be used by Mary Queen of Scots when she was in custody at Chatsworth in the 1570s. This saw the beginning of the business boom in Buxton and in 1577 there were two inns and eight ale houses in the town – there were only 18 inns in the whole of Derbyshire! Shrewsbury’s Hall replaced an earlier structure on the site, suggesting that Buxton was popular for its water before then. Very little survives from Buxton in the Medieval period so early prints and written records are the best evidence for the town during this time. The 1610 map of Derbyshire (above) clearly shows The Hall with St. Anne’s well and the cold spring next to it.

Souvenir Patchbox from Buxton

Souvenir Patchbox from Buxton

The 18th century was a period of massive expansion for the town. The 5th Duke of Devonshire wanted Buxton to challenge its old rival Bath and set about creating an architectural centrepiece. The Crescent was completed in the 1780s. The Crescent contained hotels and a glamorous assembly room, and on the ground floor it housed boutiques selling souvenirs. The 6th Duke maintained the tradition and re-built the Natural Mineral Baths and the Thermal Baths. In the late 19th century the Pump Room (house) was re-built too. By this point Spa tourism was a significant income for the town and Broadwalk (by Pavilion Gardens) was lined with hotels. However the popularity was not to last and the 20th century saw the demise of spa towns. The Thermal Baths, the last of the baths offering public treatments, closed in the 1960s. 

The Crescent in the snow, 2010

The Crescent in the snow, 2010

Although not currently a spa destination Buxton is still a popular place to visit because of its beautiful architecture and breath-taking scenery. The town remains in popular culture; the Opera House and the Buxton Fringe are a must on the comedy circuit, and the town is frequently mentioned as a good place to elope to/visit in the TV comedy Fresh Meat. It is hoped that the re-development of the Crescent back into a spa hotel should once more cement Buxton as a spa destination, but we shall have to wait and see. In the meantime why not follow the Collections in the Landscape blog for more information on the spa history and invites to join us in our app testing, which will take place in March.

Two familiar faces at Manchester Museum

A fortnight ago the Collections in the Landscape team visited the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) and Manchester Museum. We wanted to see how these museums use interactive and digital technology within their galleries. I expect we’ll be blogging quite a bit about our visit but I thought I’d kick it off by introducing two familiar faces. 

Ancient Worlds gallery at Manchester Museum

Ancient Worlds gallery

Sir William Boyd Dawkins and J. Wilfrid Jackson both take a starring role in Manchester Museum’s Ancient Worlds gallery. The gallery and accompanying app focus on archaeology, inlcuding local artefacts as well as those from Egypt and further afield. It also highlights the archaeologists and collectors who found and donated these objects.

Sir William Boyd Dawkins at Manchester Museum

Sir William Boyd Dawkins at Manchester Museum

Dawkins and Jackson were both curators at Manchester Museum and the Museum holds thousands of their artefacts including the majority of the bone material that Dawkins collected from Creswell Crags in the 1880s. These two cave hunters are of particular interest to us at Buxton Museum, as we hold their personal archives, along with some of their collections. In fact William Boyd Dawkins opened Buxton Museum and Art Gallery in 1928 and our Boyd Dawkins Study Room remains one of our most popular galleries.

William Boyd Dawkins Study Room at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

William Boyd Dawkins Study Room at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

The Ancient Worlds app at Manchester Museum gives further layers of interpretation to the exhibition. Many of the labels included a four digit code which you input into the app, unlocking further information e.g an interactive 3D image of the objects or an audio accompaniment. We thought some of these worked better than others, but overall it was interesting to see how apps can be used in-gallery to supplement more traditional approaches. 

Object label with the 4 digit code to unlock further infomation via the Ancient Worlds App

Object label with the 4 digit code to unlock further infomation via the Ancient Worlds App

A big thanks goes to Brian who took these photos for us after my camera battery died.  Brian has been working for the last four years on  Jackson’s archive at Buxton Museum.  You can find out more about Jackson and his correspondence on our website.

Discover Geology: An Augmented Reality Field Trip

The view from the top of Mam Tor, a very pleasant hike!

The view from the top of Mam Tor, a very pleasant hike!

I recently had the good fortune to join the University of Manchester on a field trip to Castleton and Mam Tor. The purpose of our visit was to test out ‘Discovery Geology’ – a recently developed augmented reality field trip. The experience was co-developed by a cross departmental team that included Mimas, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Faculty and Manchester Museum.

Augmented reality is something we’re curious to explore as part of Collections in the Landscape. As soon as this trip came onto my radar, I knew it would be a valuable exercise to see what other people were already doing digitally, out there in the Peak District.
But before we pull on our walking boots, what was ‘Discovery Geology’? And how did it work?

In the developers’ own words:

The app allows the user to enhance their walking experience, learning more about the geological history of the Hope Valley with expert academic commentary and insight. Other functionality includes:

  • Feature finder identifying fossils, oil deposits and minerals such as Blue John.
  • Location based Points of Interest (POI) along the way navigating your journey.
  • A compass allowing the user to find their bearings, to compliment the audio commentary.
  • Geological ‘Beneath your Feet’ diagrams illustrating the geological make up at points along the route.
  •  Dynamic navigation informing the user of the closest POI.
  • Route finder – audio directions to the next POI…. and many more.

The trail is hosted on the Junaio app, an AR browser which allows users to create, explore and share information by layering this digitally onto the real world. This is viewed through a device’s camera, hovering over a real-time view. Alternatively a map view can be used.

This video by the developer shows some of the capabilities of the browser:

So did it work…?

Starting in the car park by Castleton Visitors Centre many users experienced difficulties accessing the app, mainly due to poor signal in that area. Fortunately this was the worst signal spot on the whole route and so once the group moved off things improved.
Being unfamiliar with Junaio many people had difficulties finding their way around the app at first (myself included!). However, once I’d got to grips with the layout, capabilities and design I found the tour pretty easy to interact with. That said, some users did give up due to the tempting paper versions of the tour handed out to everybody before the walk started. This just goes to show how inclined people are to take the easiest option!

In general, audio, images and texts loaded fairly quickly. Once or twice I had to wait for audio to buffer half-way through but this was not common. So long as GPS is functioning it was simple and straight forward to interact with points of interest through camera view or via map view.

Each point of interest typically contained the following content:

  • One or more audio commentaries describing geographic features in the landscape. For example at POI 9 – Top of the Ridge, there is a ‘Look North’ and ‘Look South’ option, each linking to an audio guide explaining the view and underlying geology.
  •  ‘Beneath your Feet’ opens up a page with a geological map with the walking route laid over the top. The POI is marked on and users can see what type of rocks they are currently standing on.
  • ‘Route’ links to a short audio instruction to give the users directions to the next POI. Live View or Map View are not detailed enough to show pathways etc.
  • Some POIs had more specialised content, for example POIs 10 – On the ridge, and 14 – Windy Knoll, had links to images of nearby rocks and prompted the user to locate fossils or other interesting features. The ‘Feature Finder’ at Windy Knoll is a particularly good example.
Geological features at Windy Knoll

Oil seepage was just one of the geological features that the app highlighted at Windy Knoll.

The main problem encountered was battery life. The phone was fully charged that morning but constant use of GPS and frequent use of my phone’s camera on Live View drained the battery very quickly. I had a flat battery by around 3pm. This can be saved by maximizing use of Map View and using Live View as little as possible but that sort of negates the point using of AR in the first place.

Bright sunlight was also problem in places, making the screen difficult to read. Another slight hazard was the temptation to walk whilst looking at/through the phone screen. This caused more than one near trip or stumble.


Overall the app and content functioned well in the landscape and, save for a couple of black spots, signal was good and content was fairly quick to load. Problems such as signal or battery life will probably resolve themselves as technology progresses and as phones/tablets get more and more sophisticated. It may be advisable to limit trail lengths until battery lives significantly improve.

The app did look better and seemed easier to use on tablet devices. That said, it was not difficult to use on a smart phone. This is more of an aesthetic comment although clearly the quality and size of photographs on a tablet make visual information more accessible.

The app turned a pleasant hike into a more enriching experience with only a couple of technological hiccups. Although this tour didn’t utilize museum collections it certainly wouldn’t be difficult to insert this type of content into it. I’m definately keen to explore the possibilites of AR as part of the project…

Don’t just trust my review!

Mimas have already blogged about the field trip

MancOnline also tested out the trail