All posts by Annette.Haworth

Great Fire Engine Mystery

The Great Fire Engine Mystery – the story
It’s Good Friday – the one day in the year that the workers in the village have as holiday.

But, Chief Engineer Rab Bit and his team have to test the fire engine.

Disaster strikes as Rab is walking to the village through the woods. He steps on a rabbit trap. He drops his notebook. He manages to escape but his leg is broken. He can’t organise the fire engine test.

His team do their best.

They wheel the fire engine down to the village pond. They put one end of a hose in the water. They hold the end of the other hose up towards the trees. They start pumping. Everyone comes to watch.

A great cheer goes up as the water gets to the top of the trees. The fire engine is working.

But suddenly they hear a scream. Mummy Duck comes running up. Duckling is missing. One minute he was taking his first swim in the pond. The next he was nowhere to be seen.

Whatever happened? And where is Duckling?

Crack Reading detectives are called in to look at the evidence.

Some children by the pond thought they saw something fly past. Luckily one of them has taken a video on her phone. The detectives have a good look at it.

Is that Duckling zooming past? It can’t be. Duckling can’t fly yet. He was only just learning to swim.

The detectives find out how the fire engine works.

Was Duckling sucked up by the fire engine? But that should be impossible. A fire strainer on the end of the hose would have stopped anything being sucked up.

They find Rab Bit’s notebook where he’d dropped it by the rabbit trap. He had made a note to take the fire strainer with him.

The detectives hunt for the fire strainer. It looks very new and completely unused.

The detectives have discovered that the team forgot all about the fire strainer. Duckling must have been sucked up by the fire engine and shot out of the other end towards the trees.

They hunted high and low. Eventually they found Duckling, looking very angry, high up in a tree.

Mummy Duck was very happy.

The fire team were rather embarrassed but they never forgot the fire strainer again.

Chief Engineer Rab Bit was so grateful that he gave the detectives a medal and tickets to watch his favourite film, Tilley and the Fire Engines (1911).

The not-so-Alternate Reality

Built in 1839, the fire engine at the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading, UK was in service for over a century. It was tested on Good Fridays as that was the only day, apart from Sundays, that the people in the Norfolk village did not have to work. Testing it was a spectacle that everyone came out to view.

Privy photo courtesy the Ramsey Rural Museum Cambs

A Chief Engineer and two other men were paid a small amount to tend the engine which was last used on a call to a privy fire in 1930.

The village decided it was too expensive to keep the fire engine in the 1930s but during the Second World War it was positioned by a farm pond in case incendiary bombs hit the hay ricks.

Further information about the fire engine is in the Museum of English Rural Life catalogue’51/410′

Just as we were setting-up the trail in the Museum, Fred the Conservator showed us a wonderful Huntley & Palmer biscuit tin. Dating from the 1890s, the tin depicts a steam-driven fire-engine drawn by two horses, with lively scenes of fire fighting. Fred kindly put it in the horse-vet display case near the fire-engine. Fantastic real-time museum display design! Huntley & Palmers was a central part of Reading life in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Alfred Palmer built ‘East Thorpe’ (Later St Andrews Hall) which now houses the Museum’s extensive archives.

Fred also found a video showing a fire engine like the one in the MERL being pulled by a horse in the Netherlands.

and there’s another Tilley engine being demonstrated in New Zealand at

test gif

Low cost digital activities for heritage sites

Over the last few years, the iMuse programme has tried-out lightweight (in cost and technology terms) ways of creating digitally-enabled activities with the aim of encouraging visitors to look more closely at, or learn more about, an aspect of their heritage.

These activities tend to be ephemeral. For example, the ‘Splat Medusa’ game was created as a way of honouring our promise to a group of 16 year olds from a special school that we would use all their artwork in a webapp which was to be the final outcome of a project in the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology. The students chose objects which represented Medusa, heard the tale and created their own representations. Presented with a couple of dozen portraits of the head of Medusa, we used them as the objects to be ‘splatted’ as they moved through the ‘cave’ on a screen. This proved popular, and became more used as the main teacher involved reused it to engage new students with the museum objects the next year. By chance the webapp had been set up so it could be downloaded to an iPad and remain there even when offline.

However, IT that is not ‘looked after’ on an ongoing basis tends to ‘die’. Not only does the underlying technology change but also the memory of how to use an application, who owns it, where it is stored, disappears as personnel change. For example, in the same museum, equipment set up to run this webapp within the gallery now lies idle.

Does this matter? In the circumstances under which iMuse operates (it’s merely an umbrella name for a set of lowcost experiments in IT for heritage visitors) the answer is mainly ‘No’. Voluntary effort has had fun along with visitors (and occasionally learned something more long-lasting on the way). On the other hand, it seems a bit wasteful that the techniques employed, and maybe some of the visitor experiences, are not recorded so that other (particularly small and cash-strapped heritage sites) might see if some are useful to them.

Here a list of some of the techniques that have been tried by iMuse, each with a practical example.

Activities for you to try out

  • post_title
    Alternate Reality (not to be confused with Augmented Reality, qv) can be summarised as ‘a fictional narrative instigating and supporting exploration of a physical space’. It is a technique that iMuse has been introduced to at several museum-computer conferences in the US and UK, but has not as yet participated in in real life apart … Continue reading Alternate reality
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    Augmented Reality (AR) is a technique in which a user views the real scene in which they are standing through their mobile device (tablet/smartphone) which overlays 2/3D virtual figures/objects. It is a technique heralded as being of particular interest to heritage sites where for example parts of a building are missing. iMuse has tried this … Continue reading Augmented reality
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  • post_title
    This game was tried out in the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading, just as iPads with cameras had hit the market. They were very new and their use in museums was not really known. Whether the game would have the same appeal now that everyone owns their own tablet/smartphone we don’t know, but at … Continue reading Detective trail
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  • post_title
    GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format) are often used to hold small, short animations. They can also be used to show short ‘slideshows’ as a lightweight way of adding interest to a website or to include instead of a still image on social media. RG Spaces used this technique to respond to a university student’s call for … Continue reading GIFs
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    This is a game inspired by the popular ‘Candy Crush’ which in turn was inspired by ‘Bejeweled’. A player moves objects on the screen to make a match of three or more, eliminating those from the board and replacing them with new ones, which could potentially create further matches. We used photos of the objects … Continue reading Heritage Crush
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    A seminar on techniques for leveraging users’ own mobiles in heritage sites (on HQS Wellington, moored on the Embankment in London UK, together with Info-Point in February 2018), inspired iMuse to look into creating online jigsaws. Visitors can take a photo of some aspect of the site (or, of course, a selfie) and create a … Continue reading Jigsaw
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  • post_title
    16 year olds from a special school working on a project in the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology produced a set of animated cartoons (gifs) showing classical figures they had been studying based on image on museum objects. These were used as the faces of cards for a game of pairs (pelmanism). The backs of … Continue reading Pairs
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  • post_title
    Inspired by a seminar on visitors using their own mobiles within a heritage site (February 2018, HQS Wellington with Info-Point), iMuse has experimented with creating a scratchcard of the Reading Abbey Gateway. This was timed for its opening after extensive HLF-funded refurbishment in Spring 2018 and was aimed at illustrating how ‘heritage’ can be interpreted … Continue reading Scratchcard
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  • post_title
    The user splats objects moving up the screen to gain points. This activity was used to accomodate two dozen portraits of Medusa produced by school children during a project on re-interpreting Greek pots in a Greek archaeology museum.
    Try itMore info
  • post_title
    Over the 2012 Olympics and in the following couple of years, the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology held ACE grants which enabled it to work with 16 year olds from 3 schools (grammar, comprehensive, special), a panel of undergraduates and a professional animator, interpreting Greek pots. The participants were introduced to objects in the Museum … Continue reading Stop motion video
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Trying out a scratchcard

The Reading Abbey Gateway has just been restored. It raises questions of restoration versus conservation – given the Gateway, first erected in medieval times, was in a terrible state by the 1800s (even though Jane Austen had been to school there) and more or less completely fell down in the mid 1800s.

It was rebuilt to a design by Gilbert Scott and has just been restored as part of Reading’s Abbey revealed project.

Here’s an experiment with a ‘scratchcard’ (use finger or mouse depending on your device) on the theme – what is it we are restoring/are we conserving anything?

(Thanks to HQS Wellington and infopoint for the seminar where imuse picked up the idea of using a scratchcard)

First experiment with augmented reality

Can AR help visitors’ enjoyment and learning in museums? We are just beginning to play to see whether we can create fun activities without spending a lot of money. We would like them to be usable in two ways

  • on a user’s own phone/tablet
  • on a tablet loaned to them by the venue without necessarily needing to be online [heritage sites are sometimes characterised by having thick walls and are wifi-challenged].

We have neither the expertise nor the desire to implement native apps, both because of the costs of maintaining apps across multiple platforms and because of visitors’ resistance to loading apps. We have also had a bad experience using someone else’s app which was removed without warning [Everytrail] so we are looking at implementing webapps. Our first experiment is with an iPad running IOS11, Jerome Etienne’s ar.js tracking suite on top of ARToolkit and a couple of models downloaded from Sketchfab. Here they are in the Museum of English Rural Life (Reading, UK).

Visiting the ladies in the chook run
visiting the ladies in the chook runCockerel model CC attribution The Ice Wolves (

So what is cow reality?
so what is cow reality
White-brown cow model CC attribution Josue Boisvert ‘Real’ black-white cow model by MERL.

There are some problems with using iPad.

  • IOS now (version 11) does support WebRTC on Safari but putting the website from Safari to the home page does not work
  • it is not supported on other browsers (e.g. Chrome)
  • also does not work in the Kiosk Pro app.
  • IOS does not allow audio to be played without some user interaction which means the user doesn’t hear the cock crow once he comes into view
  • Safari requires the user to accept whether the camera can be used or not which adds another hurdle to ease of use

Such problems don’t exist on a 6 year old laptop running Windows 7 for example so it was disappointing to find that the iPad felt less usable.

All this may mean we have to abandon thoughts of using the iPad for anything other than visitors bringing their own and in sites with good wifi, unless we can tie things down using guided access. In other experiments, the Kiosk Pro app has enabled us to load all the code into the iPad, lock it down sufficiently so that the visitor cannot ‘break out’ into another activity, and safely allow them to use the activity without supervision/having to constantly check that nothing has stopped working. [See for example the Ladybird book which formed part of an exhibition some years ago and needed no supervision]

We hope that Apple will lift these restrictions. We will now experiment with Android devices.