Showtime! Fun Palaces – bringing science and the arts to the community

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Standing behind the counter of Cheltenham Library one Saturday, a colleague beamed at me “Let’s do a Fun Palace”. I had no idea what she was on about. Was she suggesting a new craze I hadn’t heard of? Hmmm, she already works as a Science Communicator so was it something along those lines? My eyes darted around looking for hints – I came clean, I hadn’t the foggiest idea.

Turns out Fun Palaces is an international campaign, bringing science, art, craft and tech together for one weekend a year, free for everyone and run by the community. Libraries are community hubs. In the Gloucestershire service, we offer more than books. A Fun Palace fits in well here.

Once I knew about Fun Palaces, I enthusiastically agreed to help since it tied in to the skills I had been developing on the Science Communication MSc here at UWE. As long as it could wait until after all my assessments were handed in of course. My colleague wrote a proposal, we were given the ‘nod’, and away we went.

QueationSo which modules and skills from the MSc were invaluable for the event? I cannot decide. I filled this post with important aspects of the course, then realised no one wanted to read a thesis on this. Basically, I used skills learnt from every module.

The experiences provided by Science in Public Spaces (‘We the Curious’, the Explorer Dome, training by VOX and a self-selected visit to one of the Science Museum ‘Lates’) were extremely useful in highlighting how some ideas work well in some spaces and for some audiences, but not others. It also provided practical skills via the BoxEd project. Writing Science came in handy when it came to publishing promotional tweets, producing marketing materials and writing a last-minute media release. The compulsory modules provided an understanding of audiences, whether people feel able to engage in STEM and how you can get around those who feel they can’t, and the Two Cultures debate.

Most of you will probably be shouting at your screens “Get to the Fun Palace already”. I hear you.

So who did we want to attract? Did we want a theme or did we want our first ever Cheltenham Library Fun Palace to be eclectic? We went with ‘eclectic’ as we wanted people to be enticed by at least one activity and end up staying for more. We also needed the library to run as usual, not alienating our existing customers. Cue brainstorm.

We had ZERO budget *sobs* so had to rely on people generously donating their time and activities. Two course-mates either participated or lent me their projects. Dr Samantha Organ (being my twin sister she couldn’t really refuse) ran Spaghetti Towers on behalf of RICS – one of the most successful activities. She does this with first year students at UWE and found the children in the library performed just as well!

Posters created by Stephanie Organ

Whilst scoping out the Cheltenham Science Festival earlier that year, we found Oh-Bot, who ran their awesome robotic head programming activity. The Embroiderers’ Guild provided the most amazing entrance to the Adults’ Library, bookmark embroidery (how appropriate!) and leaf embroidery. Adult Education, Gloucestershire ran a beautiful silk painting workshop, and Hackspace and Cuddly Science had colouring sheets, puppets and an eclectic, hands-on display table. We also had safe cracking, poetry readings, international story time, selfie props, and an amazing reading by Luna Loves Library Day author, Joseph Coelho, with illustrator, Fiona Lumbers.

Showtime! It was a slow start but things quickly picked up, especially in the Children’s Library where families, who were visiting the library anyway, ended up staying for the activities and readings. Initially, the activities in the Adults’ Library (a neighbouring building – logistically challenging!) were quiet, so volunteers and staff in the Children’s Library promoted them, leading to a surge in attendance. My other half completed the evaluation sheets and provided me with feedback during the event so I could make sure everything was running smoothly (no boyfriends were harmed in the making of this Fun Palace!).


Event photographs courtesy of Gloucestershire libraries.

I experienced challenges along the way. The planning involved more work than I expected (anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t do things by halves!) and I had to overcome last-minute changes including contributors cancelling and changes in equipment availability. Luckily, I managed to call in a few favours and it got sorted eventually.

Predominantly, families attended. The feedback was all positive from customers, staff and contributors alike, with requests for another Fun Palace next year. Probably most surprising was the comment from a senior librarian who helped me on the day. She said that the event organisation and elements I had thought about (such as signage and security considerations in a public venue) had changed things at HQ and would be used as a template for future events. What I still cannot quite believe is that the Head of the Libraries Taskforce for the Government’s Culture Department turned up unannounced to my event. She wanted to meet me and receive post-event feedback (little did she expect my hefty evaluation). She has asked me to write about it for a Government blog. #flabbergasted.

I swore I wouldn’t do another…a month later I was already brainstorming ideas for next year.

CH Fun Palace Selfie Sticks Steph - Harrypotter-Madhatter 1


Stephanie Organ is an MSc Science Communication student embarking on her final project. Together with a degree in Biological Sciences, her background in customer-facing roles, experience in the arts, and her natural curiosity have come in handy on the interactive and eclectic Masters programme here at UWE Bristol.

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