The Dust Settles on Explorathon and Fun Palaces 2016

Explorathon_poster_v1.pdf FINAL-page-001

Correction (12/10/16): Fun Palaces supports ALL the arts, not just visual and performing

This week, Heather and I (Sarah) are regrouping after our third Explorathon – Scotland’s version of European Researchers’ Night – and second Fun Palaces. It was brilliant to work with so many researchers, students and partner organisations to bring these events to life! We are endlessly thankful to everyone who gave their time, and hope they felt it was worthwhile.

What is European Researchers Night?

It’s a massive event, funded by the European Commission, that celebrates academic research. It runs over 24 hours on the last Friday in September each year (from midday on Friday to midday on Saturday). Nearly 300 cities across Europe are involved, including Edinburgh. The Edinburgh event is funded as part of a Scotland-wide proposal, led by the University of Aberdeen, called Explorathon.

The audience for all European Researchers Night events is members of the public. The European Commission is especially keen on events that encourage young people into research careers, but all public engagement with research – especially that which reaches deprived or traditionally excluded groups – is welcome.

Storytelling at the Curiosity Forest

Storytelling at the Curiosity Forest

Researchers from any subject area can be involved. (The official EU website talks about ‘science’, but this is because the EU calls all research ‘science’.) The EU loves it if EU-funded researchers are involved, especially if they’re funded under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie schemes, but all researchers at all career stages, with funding from anywhere or nowhere, are encouraged to take part.

fun-palace-illustration1_smallWhat is Fun Palaces?

Everyone an Artist, Everyone a Scientist

Fun Palaces has no formal connection to European Researchers’ Night but, in 2016, the two events fell on the same weekend. Given researchers took part in both in 2015, it made sense to people involved in Edinburgh to try and combine the two.

Fun Palaces is an ongoing, London-originating campaign that “supports local culture at the heart of every community”. The culmination of the Fun Palaces year is an annual weekend of arts and science events created by, for and with local people, that takes place on the first weekend in October each year.

Fun Palaces HQ does not provide funding, but it does provide advice, publicity, a toolkit for those taking part, and is very generous with its concept and brand – you don’t need to start with anything too fancy and have a lot of freedom. Also, unlike European Researchers’ Night, Fun Palaces is not aimed solely, or even primarily, at universities, but it does very much welcome researcher involvement. There is special focus on the visual and performing arts and the natural and physical sciences, but you can really make the events what you want (within reason).

Harmony Choir @ Leith Labs (Ocean Terminal)

Harmony Choir @ Leith Labs (Ocean Terminal)

What happened in 2016?

In 2016, we had combined Explorathon and Fun Palaces events at:

We also had two special sessions of regular events run by others, especially for the Explorathon adult audience:

Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group @ Edinburgh City Chambers

Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group @ Edinburgh City Chambers

Last but not least, we were very lucky that a researcher already independently planning to run an event that day allowed us to badge it as part of Explorathon. (A very quick win for us, and hopefully it helps with publicity for the event organiser, although on this occasion it was not needed!) This event was “Whose Voice Is It Anyway?”, organiser by Charlotte Bosseaux of the University of Edinburgh.

Was it a success?

We’re still figuring that out, and are waiting for some evaluation data to be returned by members of the public. However, we think we pretty much hit our key objectives:

  • An audience of around 2,000-2,100 (we were aiming for about 2,200)
  • A good number of researchers involved from all universities in Edinburgh (we think we involved 65-70 researchers and students from all four universities and beyond)
  • We reached ‘hard-to-reach’ groups: we think we did this both through WHALE and the Edinburgh Active Citizenship group events pretty well

Things which we’re expecting to be confirmed shortly as being areas for improvement are:

  • Although a lot of members of the public saw what we were doing, many of these were just walking past. We would like our 2017 audience stats to include a higher proportion of people who actively engaged
  • We can always improve on reaching ‘hard-to-reach’ groups, and are very much still learning here
Cafe Scientifique

Cafe Scientifique @ Golf Tavern

What did we learn?

For me, this year of Explorathon validated what I know to best practice, but which has been hard to put into action in the previous two years of Explorathon for various reasons. Namely:

  1. Work with people who have the skills and contact you lack: The Beltane team has good access to researchers (especially those at the University of Edinburgh) and, to a certain extent, (EU) money. What neither Heather nor I can do is a long list: set-dressing; theatrical performance; setting stuff on fire; turning research concepts into games; persuading kids from more deprived areas to come and do a craft activity with a researcher; have multiple beautifully imagined and realised event concepts. This year, for the first time, I feel we had most of this in place (I hope our partners agree), and that was because we had planned it, budgeted for it, spoken to people early, then kept contact going with them. So simple, yet so hard to do when you’re busy, and almost impossible when a funding proposal or event idea lands on your desk at the 11th hour.
    Fun at the Curiosity Forest!

    Fun at the Curiosity Forest!

  2. Invest time – lot of it – in personalised relationship management: Getting researchers and students interested in contributing to events like Explorathon and Fun Palaces is not that hard: researchers are often proactive, enthusiastic people. What is hard, unless they are backed by a persistent member of support staff, is converting that interest into an activity on the day that goes okay. (This conversion is an age-old programme that turns up in all sorts of recruitment situations.) Researchers are very busy, and sometimes trepidatious. Blanket emails don’t cut it. You need to follow up, personally, with every person who expresses interest, and make sure your event providers can do the same when you transfer ownership of the relationship. We still didn’t completely crack it this year – the volume of interest made it hard to get back to everyone as fast as we’d hoped – but we think we’ve definitely kept more people happy this time round. Make good use of the phone, and meet face-to-face whenever you can.
  3. Adults like to drink, and religion is tricky: This year, the Curiosity Forest moved to a bigger venue – the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church. It looked beautiful before, and magical when Lisa had finished, but our numbers at this venue were lower than we’d hoped. There will be multiple factors behind this – sunny days, how we advertised – but two things became apparent as the Curiosity Forest unfolded, as we had been nervously anticipating: (i) many adults really want to drink on a Friday night, which we could not offer in a consecrated Methodist church (and drinks offers for elsewhere afterwards did not quite cut it); (ii) some people will wonder what your link is with the church and, depending on their previous experiences of organised religion, may be discouraged by the mere suggestion of a link. (In reality, our only link was that we loved the space in the church and the church were very kind, and very keen to support the Fun Palaces initiative by generously donating venue space.)
    Lisa Thompson's beautiful Curiosity Forest

    Lisa Thompson’s beautiful Curiosity Forest (City of Edinburgh Methodist Church)

  4. People are funny about the EU right now: Not a surprise to anyone. However, the EU flags we had festooned all over our stands attracted some interesting comments, especially at Ocean Terminal, and were probably a minor barrier to engagement.
  5. Evaluation is hard when you have drop-in activities in a venue with multiple entrances and exits: For this reason, our Ocean Terminal attendance stats are the least precise
  6. Finding a public-friendly, practical and robust evaluation method is really hard: This year, we switched from long paper forms to a short online entrance poll, with the option to opt-in to a follow-up survey after the event by email. Members of the public undoubtedly appreciated being asked fewer questions on the spot, and our volunteers appreciated not having to do manual data entry of paper form data; however, we found some of the older generation at Ocean Terminal did not have access to email, so there was no scope to follow-up to see what they thought afterwards. Heather also had many hours of discussion about how to phrase questions so that they are valuable to ask, but still comprehensible.
  7. Everything is less stressful, and quality is much easier to manage, when you have 5 venues, not 13: For the first couple of years of Explorathon, we had many small events over a large number of venues. The idea was that these events would be grass-roots but, in practice (probably due to the lead time we allowed and our general relationship management), the Beltane team had to have some involvement in all of them. We do not have enough people to do this well, so silly practical things went wrong that really should not have, and we let some people down.
  8. Everything is less stressful when you are not 34 weeks pregnant and/or having to collect a sick baby from nursery: Fertility choices and large, immovable events are sometimes a difficult marriage…
  9. Be grateful and show it with action, not just words: People may not need to do this project as much as you, or be as excited as you, or have as much time as you. You can’t do it without them, so show your gratitude whenever you can: don’t keep them waiting if it’s within your control, and acknowledge the value of what they’ve specifically contributed
    Discussions over a cup of tea at the Living Memory Association

    Discussions over a cup of tea at the Living Memory Association

Will it happen again?

Yup! We definitely get to hang onto our current European Commission funding for 2017, so the next Explorathon Edinburgh will be on Friday 29th September 2017. Leith Labs will be there, and there will be Murder in the Museum at the National Museum of Scotland; we also hope to be joined by many more of this year’s event organisers. We hope to issue the call for contributors in early 2017, so please keep an eye on

Fun Palaces will be on 7th and 8th October 2017 – a different weekend – but there will be opportunities for researchers and other individuals and organisations to be part of that too.

See you for 2017!