The story of Project What If

Image: Lisa Whiting

We’re all about people's questions and curiosity

In May 2021, we reopened our doors with Project What If - the first major science centre exhibition in the UK all about the curiosity of a city. 

Project What If uses questions asked by people to dive into the creative, living and inspiring world of science.

 

What if we built an exhibition with the people of our city?

Since 2018, we've gathered over 10,000 questions from people in every postcode of Bristol. We've done this both in our venue and out in the city with our silver Curious Cube (pictured above).

With the help of some of our community partners, staff and volunteers we whittled the list down to just seven final questions. The selected questions are about themes like happiness, the universe, invisibility, illness and time.  

Each question is explored through a cluster of exhibits in the Project What If exhibition space. We're calling these clusters 'constellations'.

Find out more about the experience itself and the constellations

'Each exhibition area uses high-tech, beautiful design to explore these very different questions in lots of ways, covering a huge variety of different disciplines and voices. We’ve worked with so many amazing people, from members and volunteers, to partners and schools, the question askers themselves and people who have never even stepped foot in our doors.

We want Bristolians of all ages and backgrounds to be proud of the gorgeous exhibition they helped create and for that exhibition to mirror the diversity and beauty of Bristol itself. We want everyone to feel a part of science and curiosity, at a time where it’s never been more important.” - Amelia Howarth, Projects Producer

Image: Thomas Buttery, Limbic Cinema

If you've visited us before, you'll notice that Project What If is a little different from our previous exhibitions. The experience is inspired by questions from real people and has been shaped by many voices. 

As a result, Project What If explores the human side of science. As well as traditional science content, it includes individual stories and touches on subjects that you might find unusual in a science centre, such as religion, sexuality, illness and mental health. 

We wanted to draw your attention to one of the exhibits which covers the sensitive topic of illness. At the back of the ground floor, you’ll find a large, lit photographic installation which explores the idea of illness and representation with photographic illustrations of people with self-defined illnesses.

In some cases, it may be useful to see this information in advance of your visit, so that you’re prepared for any conversations you may have during your visit with us.

The images are the work of artist Jack Powley. If you’d like to explore the images and the contributor’s stories further in your own way, you can find more information on Jack’s website. There are also further images of each of the people represented in the photos on the floor.  

When you’re in the venue, you can chat to our Live Science Team about any of the content that you see. Please get in touch if you'd like further info. 

 

Image: Lisa Whiting

What if we could place people at the heart of science?

It's important for us to know what different questions make you think of and how different ideas make you feel.  Throughout the development of Project What If, we continued to test out how we can bring the themes of the questions to life with you.

When the pandemic hit, we shifted our user testing sessions to a virtual format, speaking to visitors, members and new faces to We The Curious. We pooled the ideas that came from lots of different people, including researchers, magicians, skateboarders and students.

 

We also continued to work with our community partners across Bristol through our Make Space project. Each partner has designed an exhibit, together with an artist, in response to one of our constellation questions. You can experience these exhibits when you visit Project What If

 

With Project What If we're aiming to open up science by putting people at the heart of it. Alongside the seven exhibit constellations, you'll also be able to get involved in two exciting features:

  • 'Open City Lab', a ground-breaking area where you'll be able to take part in real scientific research as it happens.  
  • The ‘John James Theatre of Curiosity’, a place to explore visitors' curious questions in new and unexpected ways. 

 

A huge thank you to everyone that's contributed to this project

Project What If is supported by a £3m grant awarded by the Inspiring Science Fund – a partnership between UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and Wellcome. The support for the charity and new experience has been hugely successful in addition to this, with over £900,000 donated by other generous funders.

Key contributors to the project include:  

In addition to the support from the Inspiring Science Fund, Project What If has so far received generous support from:

  • John James Bristol Foundation
  • The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851
  • Garfield Weston Foundation
  • The National Lottery Heritage Fund
  • Stavros Niarchos Foundation
  • Innovation 4 Growth
  • Nisbet Trust
  • Charles Hayward Foundation
  • Britford Bridge Trust
  • Kirby Laing Trust
  • Medlock Charitable Trust
  • The National Lottery Community Fund
  • An anonymous funder and local individual donors

 

Inspiring Science Fund 

The Inspiring Science Fund, a partnership between UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and Wellcome, has invested £30 million in science centres across the UK, enabling them to revitalise their public offer and to develop more sustainable working practices for the future. 

New exhibitions and learning centres, alongside inclusive and creative community programmes, will inspire visitors to engage with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in fun and exciting new ways.  

Wellcome 

Wellcome exists to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. We support researchers, we take on big health challenges, we campaign for better science, and we help everyone get involved with science and health research. We are a politically and financially independent foundation. 

UKRI 

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), brings together the 7 UK research councils, Innovate UK and a new organisation, Research England, working closely with its partner organisations in the devolved administrations of the UK Government. 

About The National Lottery Heritage Fund  

Using money raised by the National Lottery, we Inspire, lead and resource the UK’s heritage to create positive and lasting change for people and communities, now and in the future. www.heritagefund.org.uk.   

  

Follow @HeritageFundUK on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use #NationalLotteryHeritageFund