Space explorers: New museum frontiers at Edinburgh’s Sick Kids Hospital

Over the last few months I have been working on bringing the experience of our Earth in Space gallery to inpatients at Edinburgh Sick Children’s Hospital.  It is part of an on-going relationship we have with Edinburgh Sick Kids Friends Foundation, who work to make the hospital environment a more creative and positive space. Many families visit our museum every day, but there are lots of children in hospital who are unable to access us. Through this project I was able to bring the museum to them.

The first part of this project was putting together a handling collection for the Play Specialists to use with children in the hospital.  Play Specialists use play to help ease the stress of a hospital stay. They often work with arts and craft materials. In the first phase of our relationship with Sick Kids we donated a collection of objects based on mammoths, inspired by our Mammoths of the Ice Age exhibition (2014).  You can read more about this project here. This time we chose to focus on a permanent gallery space, so that the objects inspiring the handling collection would be available for children to visit in the future. The museum’s Earth in Space gallery explores the origins of the universe and our place in it. It has a stunning star wall, as well as fragments of Mars, which landed on earth as a meteorite. I wanted to try and recreate the magic of this gallery in the handling collection.

Earth in Space gallery. Photo © Jenni Sophia Fuchs.
Earth in Space gallery. Photo © Jenni Sophia Fuchs.

The first objects that I needed to find were meteorites; a space-themed handling collection would not be complete without a piece of space in it! Peter Davidson, Senior Curator of Mineralogy, kindly spent time with me teaching me all about the different types of meteorites and what we can learn from them. He also put me in contact with experts who could supply me with some meteorites. There are three in total in the handling collection – one came all the way from Hawaii!

No space collection would be complete without a helmet, to help children imagine they are walking on the moon. The collection also includes a star projector, a UV light, telescope, books and posters to decorate the ward walls. It is all contained in a NASA-style backpack.

Space helmet
No space collection is complete without an astronaut’s helmet!
Space helmet
Trying on the astronaut’s helmet.

To help introduce the handling collection, myself and colleague Fiona Smith visited the hospital for several days, going round different wards. We also brought specialist equipment from the museum for families (and hospital staff) to explore. The Play Specialists made us very welcome in the playrooms and, where appropriate, we also visited patients at their bedsides. The most popular items we brought were the infrared camera and Memory Metal. Many children tried hard to defeat our clever alloy by bending it out of shape, but every time we added hot water it sprang back to its original shape. This metal is used in space technology such as some telescopes.

The complete space handling collection
Fiona and Anna with the complete space handling collection.

It was a great few days and we hope the objects were a good distraction for the children from what was happening in hospital. We also think we managed to teach a few space facts as well. The Space backpack will be staying with the Play Specialists and hopefully more children will be ‘exploring space’ in the weeks to come.

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