Satellite Stories

Participants in Satellite Stories at UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory

The first project funded by the Beacons for Public Engagement Programme at UCL was Satellite Stories. Artist Joanna Griffin worked with staff at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) to create new links with their local communities, and communities of interest, through mutual storytelling and events.

The Mullard Space Science Laboratory is a UCL centre in Holmbury St. Mary, Surrey and combines research (in astrophysics and climate modelling) with facilities manfacturing instrumentation for satellites. The Laboratories have a strong history of outreach to schools, and have been working over recent years to create strong links with local amateur astronomy societies.

Satellite Stories was a few weeks in the making, and Joanna spent time in laboratories and offices at MSSL, helping staff develop the stories of their work, but also in local Post Offices and pubs, meeting people who live and work around the labs. She brought these groups, and the amateur astronomers, together for one evening, following-on from a traditiional open day at MSSL. They walked through the grounds of MSSL together, sharing stories of life in the area, and the science and manufacture of satellites.

The project was very successful in terms of opening the eyes of MSSL staff to the public around them and the communities they serve. On the Monday morning after the main event, even staff who had previously been dismissive of this kind of work were asking how the evening had gone, and asking how they could get involved next time. There is talk of allowing the local community to take control of the next MSSL open day, and to drive the programme themeselves.

Artist Joanna Griffin said:

"...everything I know has come through conversations!"

"In the face of the complexity of spacecraft and space science, I've been struck by how well the human voice demystifies. Actually, how good the people I spoke to at MSSL, were at explaining to me what they do and always believing I could understand. I don't have a science background, everything I know has come through conversations! I noticed too, that the descriptions people gave me always created strong images in my head and changed my imagined environment. The spacecraft create markers in otherwise, for me, undefined space and they become mental markers that help me imagine distance and the profusion of particle interaction happening throughout the solar system and beyond.

"...I wanted to tap into the performance and improvisation skills..."

"Satellite Stories was about sharing this experience with more people and bringing listeners and 'storytellers' together. Particularly, when you work very intensely in a place, you often don't get that chance at an overview. So my hope was it would be an event for people at MSSL to see what it is you do, as much as for people from outside. I also wanted to create strong memories for people. Many cultures use techniques of attaching information to place and architecture in order to remember better (such as Aboriginal songlines and Roman orators). That was part of the impetus for using the house and gardens and using sunset and lanterns to transform the spaces. Also, habits form and we get use to presenting in the same kinds of contexts - lecture rooms with power point. It was brilliant that you were willing to try this out and I wanted to tap into the performance and improvisation skills that you all seem to have naturally because you are so involved in your work and so use to presenting.

"Somebody pointed out to me after the event that it had been about the experiences that the technology brings to people. I thought this was very perceptive. There was such richness in the descriptions of making, launching, travel to launch sites, the experiences brought to you of environments in space and the beautiful environment you work in and what it feels like to commit to long term, ambitious, fragile and innovative technologies. They are narratives that I don't think are included in 'Science' I'm not sure are really acknowledged outside of the field because there are still not enough interdisciplinary studies, so this has become a new focus for me: documenting the human stories of technology.

"Many more people contributed to the development of the event than took part and along the way there were many fantastic moments that I wish more people had witnessed, such as Cluster opps explaining the orbits with so much dynamic discussion and diagrams, or Roy telling me about the thinking spaces of the garden. I'm hoping I can put together at least one podcast that can encapsulate the range of voices I recorded and the amazing discoveries I made through so many wonderful conversations."

Page last modified on 28 apr 14 16:44