Home Planet

Home Planet

19/05/2022Written by Dan Kendall

Behind the scenes of the National Space Centre's new Home Planet gallery.

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They say it takes a village to raise a child. I’m not really sure who ‘they’ are, or whether ‘they’ were even asked for an opinion on the child. What had the child done? Why was the whole village looking after them anyway? I digress. Nonetheless, it’s an analogy that’s fitting when it comes to developing new exhibitions. Many people are involved, far too many to name-check – at least far too many to name-check without accidentally missing someone out!

So, with the best of all possible intentions (and no more analogies – I promise!), this is the story of how the National Space Centre’s Home Planet gallery came to be.

Beginnings

Beginnings
Kevin Yates - Head of Exhibitions, deep in thought

Back in 2020, with the help of Severn Trent, Leicester & Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership, Midlands Engine, the Foyle Foundation, The Wolfson Foundation, and the Kirby Laing Foundation, the National Space Centre began to develop a brand new exhibition. Our aim was to replace the Orbiting Earth gallery. Orbiting Earth had been one of the original parts of the National Space Centre – dating back to 2001 – but, to be honest, I never really bonded with it. It felt like a half-gallery. A space that visitors walked through without really getting much from it. Thanks to the support of our funders, we had a chance to change that.

In the beginning, there were only a handful of people working on the project. In fact, for a time, the Head of Exhibitions was working in almost complete isolation. Beginning a project like this during the Covid-19 pandemic was a little tricky. Thankfully, as the months went on, more people joined the project. However, the core idea for our new gallery sits on one person’s shoulders. Kevin Yates – Head of Exhibitions – had the job of coming up with the overall concept. He settled on a single statement, summing up our intentions:

‘The exhibition will explore how satellite data is vital for managing our relationship with the Atmosphere, Oceans, and Land of our home in space.’

The End of the Beginning

The End of the Beginning
Meteosat-7 in the new gallery
The End of the Beginning
Whiteboard planning

I began work on the project shortly after Kevin, fortunate in that a good idea was already emerging. The next step was to think about the space we had to build in and how to tell our story.

It’s worth noting that Home Planet – as the gallery would go on to be called – is not simply a climate change story. It was clear to us that environmental issues would be at the heart of the exhibition, but it was important that we kept satellites front and centre too.

We were lucky in that a Meteosat-7 flight spare satellite was already on display in the old Orbiting Earth gallery – so we could make use of this incredible object, redeveloping the display. It is rare for us to have a completely blank canvas when developing our Exhibition, but we try to find ways of making the most of what we’ve got whilst doing new and exciting things. Another example of this is the structural pillar right in the middle of the gallery. It can’t be removed without the ceiling falling down, so we converted it into a giant thermometer to make the most of what we had. That might seem odd, but it makes more sense in context – I promise (see picture below).

This early part of the project required lots of research, as we delved into books, articles, podcasts, and videos. Basically, anything we could get our hands on to help us understand the big issues and what stories we wanted to tell. And, of course, we needed a whiteboard to sketch out plans and ideas – every project needs a whiteboard.

The Team

The Team
Early concept design
The Team
Early concept design

As we started to come up with ideas for how to tell the story, it was time to broaden our team to make the most of the unique skills that we are lucky to have at the National Space Centre.

We designed some basic layouts in 3D modelling software, so that we could show people what was in our minds. We met with representatives from pretty much every department of the Centre, as well as experts from the National Centre of Earth Observation, University of Leicester, Natural Environment Research Council, Airbus, and Severn Trent. As you might imagine, some fantastic ideas came from these conversations.

Speaking to so many people also helped us to make sure that our ideas were sound – were they practically possible? Were they simply mad? Sometimes, yes. But mostly we seemed to be barking up the right tree. In fact, at one point we were thinking of putting an actual tree into the exhibition – but that idea fell by the wayside!

Refining Ideas

Refining Ideas
A giant thermometer and a surrounding interactive projection floor is part of creating the 'wow' factor in the gallery entrance

As we refined our ideas, with the help of a growing number of people working directly on the project, some key messages and ideas took shape:

  • We wanted a big, impressive ‘wow’ attractor at the front of the gallery to get people excited and interested
  • We wanted people to revel in the glory of our Home Planet
  • We wanted people to consider the way humans are changing the planet
  • We wanted people to think about the health of planet Earth and how satellites help to monitor this

This was the fun part, or at least the most fun part, as let’s face it – this isn’t a bad job! At this stage, nothing was off the table, so we could run with ideas and see what we liked best. Some key ‘must-haves’ started to take shape:

  • An immersive show on a giant screen to set the story of the gallery up
  • Interactive touch screens and display boards around Meteosat to focus on satellites
  • A giant recycled artwork to make people think
  • A way of giving people a chance to make a pledge to live more harmoniously with our Home Planet
  • A greenscreen experience, which would carry a message of hope for the future

Contractors

Contractors
The Workhaus and their clouds

Ideas are all very well but, at some point, you actually have to build something! We had a good idea of what we wanted to build, but we needed to get into how exactly to do so. This is where contractors come in.

Working with contractors comes with challenges, but if you find good ones then anything is possible. Our main contractor on the project was The Workhaus, an exhibition design and build company that we worked with previously on the Britain’s Space Race gallery, which opened in 2019.

The Workhaus ripped out our old exhibition and built the structures and theming within the new gallery. Wherever possible, we even recycled parts of the old exhibition to use in the new exhibition. In a first for The Workhaus, we tasked them with creating cloud lighting – giant light-up clouds that are part of the overall immersive storytelling, which required their team to become experts at making clouds ‘more fluffy’.

Specialists

Specialists
'The Great Wave off Kanagawa', by Katsushika Hokusai
Specialists
Michelle and Sarah surveying our difficult canvas/wall

Whilst The Workhaus was a key partner on the project, some of our ideas were going to require specialists. In particular, a giant recycled artwork and a marble run. Finding the right people for such bespoke things wasn’t easy. Thankfully we found the talents of Michelle Reader and David Williams.

Michelle is a local artist who specialises in making recycled artwork. When we met her to see some of her work, she showed us some rubbish animals that she had made. Animal models made of rubbish that is, the models themselves were incredible!

We had a vague idea of creating an artwork made of recycled materials, which would be based on, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ by nineteenth-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. We explained this to Michelle and she wasn’t phased by the idea. We explained that we’d like to use parts of the old exhibition, and still, she wasn’t phased. We showed her the wall we had in mind, which wasn’t straight or curved, but rather made up of five angled panels – finally, she was a little phased!

However, we believed we had the right artist. We had to trust Michelle and her team of creatives, as the artwork itself could only truly take shape on site, which would be months down the line. We were completely right to trust her though, as the final artwork demonstrates.

Trust

Trust
David making some last minute adjustments to the Earth Marble Run
Trust
Our first Earth marble for testing

Trust was a key factor in another bespoke part of the exhibition – our Earth Marble Run. Not something you can pop down to the shops for, but there are people out there who make such things. Fortunately.

There is a museum in Stratford-upon-Avon called the Mechanical Art & Design Museum – or the MAD Museum, for short. I had a great day out there a few years ago and I would heartily recommend it. Another reason I love it though, is that they have a section on their website that lists the creative types that they use to make all the fancy contraptions that you can see at MAD – including marble runs. Just what we needed, and their catalogue of marble artists led us to Scotland and to David Williams.

David showed us some of his work, capturing our imagination with his wondrous contraptions. He showed us remotely, as travelling to Scotland during the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t really an option!

Once again trusting that we’d found the right person was a big factor. We explained what we wanted our marble run to do, but gave David creative freedom to meet the brief.

In short, we asked him to create one boring marble run and one exciting marble run. If visitors make a positive pledge then they get the exciting run – but choose poorly and you get the boring one.

Breaking Ground

Breaking Ground
Marking out where to lay our carpet; grass, water, and sand

By the first week of 2022, we were ready to close the Orbiting Earth gallery. This was it, the beginning of the race to complete the new gallery and get it open for visitors. Suddenly, everything started to feel real. And we had a lot to do. Content to create. Designs to finish. Animation, shows, and more to get ready for when the physical build was complete.

Contractors started to appear on site regularly, with so many members of the Space Centre team helping to manage the process. Flooring contractors, electricians, and exhibition build crews came and went – and things started to take shape.

We spent a lot of time marking the floor, working out the best position for things. We also used our floor design to provide subtle cues as to how we would like visitors to journey through the gallery.

Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes
Penguin and their poo viewed from space - Credit: MAXAR Technologies / British Antarctic Survey / Pete Bucktrout
Behind the Scenes
The creation of Charlie, a key member of the project

Whilst the gallery was starting to take shape, a lot of work was going on behind the scenes to create the content that would be used to tell the Home Planet story. Experts at Airbus and the National Centre for Earth Observation helped us to create stories for an interactive that uses incredible satellite imagery to reveal how Earth is changing. Stories like seeing penguin colonies from space and studying their movements by studying their ‘movements’, i.e. looking at where their guano (penguin poo) is. Penguin poo from space, I mean come on, how good is that!

Meanwhile, our Design team took my abysmal concept drawings for infographics and turned them into fantastic animated displays. These infographics – displayed on a giant interactive wall – are designed to surprise people, but are also likely to leave visitors with questions. So we created an interactive that would allow people to have those questions answered by experts. This part of the project involved greenscreen filming with Space Centre staff, a TV presenter, and Earth observation scientists. It also led to the creation of ‘Charlie’ – a fizzy drink bottle that we made a face for to help some of the experts with where to look when talking into the camera. That was an odd moment, to be honest.

What About YOU!

What About YOU!
Sean, with Sean!

Throughout the project, we were aware that our visitors might well ask us what we are doing to live more harmoniously with our Home Planet. It was a fine line to avoid the exhibition coming across as too ‘preachy’, whilst still encouraging people to make changes to their lives. We are making changes to how the National Space Centre considers its environmental impact, and, although it is a work in progress, we wanted to reassure visitors that we are joining them in a commitment to better look after planet Earth.

In our expert Q&A interactive, visitors can listen to our Chief Executive describe our plan. They can also hear from Sean – a member of staff who is a real green ambassador in the way that he has made changes to the way he lives.

One of the most significant things we have done in recent years was to install solar panels on our roof. We wanted to include this story in Home Planet, so one morning I arrived at work to find one of our Creative team up on the roof taking pictures. Well done to Aaron for risking life and limb for the greater good!

Beginning of the End

Beginning of the End
The wave artwork arrives

As the months ticked by – or perhaps that should be, flew by – it was brilliant to see things that we’d only ever imagined starting to take shape.

A key moment for me was seeing the Great Wave artwork begin to arrive on site. Lots of pieces of rubbish, but somehow, once combined, Michelle’s vision was clear for all to see. As Michelle and her team installed the artwork on the wall, the powerful message behind the work became clearer and clearer.

The arrival of the Earth Marble Run in the back of a van was another important day for the project. It was the first real view we’d had. Looking closely, I remember thinking that I still wasn’t actually sure I understood how it worked! My concerns were put to rest a few minutes later though, once we had it running. The little Earth marble travelled on its journey, much to the delight of a handful of onlookers who had stopped their work to witness the contraption running for the first time.

The Video Booth

The Video Booth
Live action filming for the new Video Booth experience
The Video Booth
Andrew Joshi, fresh from performing on EastEnders

One of the final parts to come together on the project was the Video Booth experience. This is an interactive greenscreen experience, which places visitors into a futuristic news report. The news report looks back at the 1970s and the present day, whilst also imagining a future where we’ve already made the changes necessary to live more harmoniously with our Home Planet.

The Video Booth is designed to be fun, with visitors playing different roles – seeing themselves on-screen with different filters changing the way they look. Importantly though, this experience is also designed to give a message of hope that a better future is still possible if we work together for positive change.

To create the content for the Video Booth we needed to work with actors who would appear alongside the visitors in the finished film. It was a new experience for me, but an interesting and enjoyable one. Our actors really enjoyed the chance to work on a Space Centre project too, with one performer even growing a 70s moustache for his role. Another was taking time out from appearing in EastEnders, so we have quite the cast for our visitors to appear with.

 

Pride

Pride
The Earth Marble Run inspiring future generations
Pride
Interactive floor projection fun

When a gallery is completed there comes a time when you get to share it with visitors and staff alike. There’s nothing quite like that moment when you first allow people in to experience what’s been made. We watched on with fingers crossed when a representative from Severn Trent made the very first pledge on our Earth Marble Run – thankfully, she selected ‘Yes’ otherwise it could have been a big disappointment for everyone watching!

Sharing the beauty of our Home Planet was a key part of our message, as we want people to take away the idea that Earth is unique and we need to look after it better – and that satellites help us to do that.

To help reinforce this message, the gallery boasts a large interactive projection floor, which cycles through different biospheres. It has been brilliant watching our first few visitors hopping across stepping stones, balancing on logs, and watching fish swim away from them as they splash through a projected woodland stream. I’ve also witnessed children fleeing in panic from an octopus swimming through a coral reef scene – perhaps the projection is a little too realistic!?

Visitors

Visitors
Visitors

Our main aim was to inspire, entertain, and inform our visitors. We hope that Home Planet will do exactly that. Of course, the only way to find out if we’ve achieved that is for you to come and visit!

I hope you do, and I hope that this overview of what went into the Home Planet gallery reveals a little of the work and effort that has gone into it.

So many people have worked hard on this project, and I simply cannot name-check them all. But, you know who you all are – and I personally thank each and every one of you!

Find out more about the making of the new Home Planet gallery by watching this video

About the author: Dan Kendall is the Curator & Exhibition Manager at the National Space Centre.