Isla the Future Curator

“Isla the Future Curator” is a learning character who guides young visitors through the I Was Here exhibition, promoting engagement in archaeology and heritage, as well as representing women in STEM. She was developed for Durham Univerisity’s Museum of Archaeology by consulting with focus groups from local schools.

Client: DU Museum of Archaeology
Team: Tullia Fraser

Due to the I Was Here exhibition’s cancellation, much of Isla’s final designs cannot be published. To request copies of these finished products please contact me!


CLIENT BRIEF: Create a learning character for the I Was Here exhibition that encourages young learners to engage with the collections. The character should represent the exhibition theme; the history and research of incised writing and mark-making in Durham’s archaeology. The character should also be able to seamlessly feature in learning and promotional materials.

In creating a bespoke learning character for the I Was Here exhibition, I worked in tandem with Tullia Fraser who oversaw the exhibition’s education materials. We both developed the ideologies behind the proposed learning characters, with myself developing and executing all visual material. Designs were reported to the Museum of Archaeology’s curator (herein referred to as the client), who had final approval of all material.


INITIAL DESIGNS

The first proposed learning character was “Posty the Pigeon.” As the exhibition explored the history of writing and communication, we liked the idea of a messenger pigeon that represented one of the oldest forms of mail transport. I rendered Posty in a colourful and friendly “children’s book” illustration style, along with a hat and messenger bag to symbolise his role as a mail carrier.

While the client liked the style of the illustration, there were concerns that young learners would not be able to make the connection between pigeons and sending messages. The client then asked if we could create a “pen pal” character from one of the tools used to incise the messages onto the featured artefacts.

With Posty the Pigeon put tentatively to the side, I set to designing an anthromorphic tool character. As the exhibition largely featured Roman and Medieval artefacts, I chose a chisel which had been used to create several stone pieces (quills and pens were not an option as the exhibition did not feature artefacts written on in ink). I proposed that throughout the exhibition this chisel would appear dressed in different outfits to symbolise the different eras. In the prototype I dressed the chisel in a toga to represent the Roman period.

As I designed the chisel character it became apparent that it was not very visually exciting, and that children would not be familiar enough with chisels to identify it. Though the purpose of a chisel would be explained in the exhibition, this extra step in aiding visual representation would be just as time consuming as explaining the purpose of pigeons in carrying mail. In the days before the next client meeting, I worked with Tullia Fraser to create the “Isla the Future Curator” prototype. The inspiration largely lay in creating a character who could fully engage with the exhibition’s learning outcomes surrounding an artefact’s journey from excavation to museum display. It was decided Isla would have three different uniforms to represent her museum duties; as an archaeologist in the field, a conservator in the lab, and a researcher in the library.

While the other prototypes possibly lacked instant connection with children, we hoped Isla’s human status would make her more approachable to young learners. Furthermore, depicting a human character was also an oppurtunity for us to represent a woman of colour in museums and STEM. The client was very happy with Isla, especially since she represented an archaeological emphasis on learning. Reviewing the three prototypes, the client acknowleged the chisel’s weaknesses and approved Isla and Posty to move forward to focus group testing.

FOCUS GROUP RESEARCH

Pictures of Posty the Pigeon and Isla the Future Curator were given to several year two classes visiting the museum. We interviewed the students in groups of 5 to 8 with help from the teachers. Initially students were asked what they thought of each character. Following discussion, basic roles of each character were explained in further detail. Students were then asked to choose their favourite character and explain why.

During the process we interviewed the teachers as well, asking what methods and teaching tools they find most useful on museum visits. The teachers emphasised visual learning and that students found learning resources that used descriptive pictures over words easier to engage with.

Overall Posty the Pigeon was the most popular with the students, being described as ‘funny and cuddly,’ ‘my favourite type of bird,’ and ‘has a nice uniform’. However, the reasons given for Posty were visual and did not related to archaeology or learning outcomes. In contrast, students saw Isla as an educational figure, using descriptors as ‘teacher’ and ‘leader’. The Learning Team members and teachers present also voiced support for Isla and the values she represented.

Following the teachers’ recommendations, it was decided that having an easily identifiable character would be more conducive to achieving learning outcomes. While Posty’s image was successful, there was not much opportunity to extend his character role to archaeological research. Isla’s character role already covered many aspects of education, and following the positive keywords used for Posty, Isla’s image could be improved to be more visually engaging.

FINAL DESIGN

We presented our findings to the client, who agreed that we should go ahead with adapting Isla after the feedback. As many of the students found Posty’s bright blue feathers visually fun, I changed Isla’s hair to be blue. I also gave her glasses and a more vivid top colour to add to visual interest. Per recommendations by the teachers, I also made sure to depict Isla with a tool or different accessory for each uniform to aid visual storytelling.

Following the positive feedback on colourful imagery, I employed a vivid colour scheme for all graphics involving Isla. As well as aiding learning, this aligned with the client’s current redesign of the museum space to colour-code each section with a different bright colour. The exhibition itself would feature in blue, yellow, and red sections, so I made sure Isla’s design would complement the display area.

RECEPTION

Isla’s final design was approved by the client in February 2020, and she is still currently a character at Durham University’s Museum of Archaeology. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 lockdown the exhibition was cancelled before opening and I was not able to research public reception of Isla and her learning materials. However, her introductory post on twitter in March recieved positive feedback from the public and museum professionals. I am excited to see how she will feature in the museum in the coming years.

A reference sheet for future designers at the Museum of Archaeology to refer to when creating resources with Isla. Isla is depicted in her three primary uniforms: curatorial, fieldwork, and laboratory.

A series of graphics for social media, introducing Isla’s duties as a curator, archaeologist, conservator, and researcher.