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'.
'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: 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:
- Creative Director - Anna Starkey
- Exhibit architects - kossmann.dejong
- Exhibit fabricators - Bruns
- Software developers - Calvium
- University of Bristol
- Community partners including Creative Youth Network, West of England for Inclusive Living (WECIL) and Bridge Learning Campus
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 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.
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.