The Maker Revolution: simple models and tools for digital making



Animating the Newcomen Engine – Barnsley Museums. Photo: Wayne Sables

One of my favourite jobs as a heritage consultant is being the Learning & Content Lead for the Age of Revolution project – an online resource for schools based around a ‘revolutionary’ collection of over 100 objects from museums and galleries across the UK. Recently we’ve been working with sector partners to create simple, useful resources for schools and museums keen to have a go at digital making, but not always sure where to start…

The Maker Movement is a technological and creative revolution underway around the world. It combines new tools and technology with traditional making in the physical world to solve problems and bring new ideas to life, quickly and cheaply. The movement promotes collaboration and sharing of ideas, tools and findings so that others can bring even better ideas to life and solve more and more complex problems. Team unlimbited – who began by making bespoke, 3D printed prosthetic limbs for children in their garden shed – are just one of a gazillion great examples of the Maker Movement in action. The Pussy Hat project is another.

Teachers and Museum Learning Producers told us they were keen to incorporate digital making into their learning activities, but a lack of time and resource made this difficult – and many didn’t really know where to start. Our response to this was The Maker Revolution – the digital making strand of our Age of Revolution resources for schools.

Inspired by the Maker Movement’s ethos of combining new and traditional technologies, we funded ten museum-school partnerships to each develop a digital making project that could be shared and replicated in classrooms and museums across the UK. Each project should:

  • Use easily accessible digital tools, such as tablets, greenscreens, 3D printers, coding or mini-computers (e.g. Raspberry Pi, micro:bit)
  • Incorporate museum collections and link to the Age of Revolution (1775 – 1848)
  • Be curriculum-relevant
  • Develop young people’s digital skills
  • Be easily replicable in a classroom or museum setting.

By participating in one of these projects, students (and educators) would not only learn new creative and digital skills, but also gain knowledge and understanding about some of the extraordinary innovations and ideas from the Age of Revolution.

Our partners did not disappoint! The funding allowed them to experiment with freely available digital tools and, together, they developed a collection of innovative – yet simple – projects and approaches. These ranged from projection mapping of the first steam engine (complete with animated parts and folk soundtrack), to stop-frame animation, interactive campaign banners and revolutionary cookbooks.

Find out more – and have a go – with our ‘How to’ guides and project blogs:

Still from the Age of revolution animation

Revolutionary animation with the Age of Revolution – bringing to life the first balloon flight, vaccination, protest and the French revolution through simple stop-motion animation.

Interactive campaign banners with Leeds Museums – combining traditional felt making with micro:bits and simple coding

The Newcomen Engine with Barnsley Museums – exploring the workings of this extraordinary machine through animated projection mapping

Interactive revolutionary cookbooks with London Connected Learning Centre  – the industrial revolution, climate change and digital cookbooks to reduce your carbon footprint

Making an Abolition quilt with Hull Museums – bringing together voices of resistance and abolition through digital collaging and traditional quilting

Adaptation and evolution with SEARCH: Hampshire Cultural Trust – simple coding using Scratch

As Lockdown starts to ease, we’re looking forward to these projects – coming soon:

  • A women’s virtual march through time – with Bradford Peace Museum
  • Revolutionary digital comics – with Brunts Academy
  • Traditional and digital techniques in ceramics and ceramic surface design – with Christchurch Academy
  • 3D printing with The National Museum of Computing


 The Age of Revolution

The Age of Revolution (1775 – 1848) was a time of seismic change and upheaval, of extraordinary ideas and innovation and of radical new ways of thinking, living and working.  From campaigns for equality, rights and freedoms, to life-changing discoveries and innovations, the Age of Revolution shaped the modern world. It saw the transformation of whole nations through the French, American and Haitian revolutions; violent wars around the globe; the industrial and printing revolutions, the birth of the railways and major advances in medicine and science; as well as Chartism, the abolition of slavery, the beginnings of feminism, communism and the suffrage movements – and much more.

All of which still impacts on our lives today




Lessons we learned from Understanding Slavery





Last night’s #MuseumHour on International Slavery Remembrance Day raised lots of interesting questions about representing the histories and legacies of Transatlantic Slavery in museums. It put me in mind of 2007 when the sector came together to mark the bicentenary of the act to abolish transatlantic slavery (heady days – when there was money and government support for this sort of thing!) and all that was learned along the way.

The Understanding Slavery Initiative (USI) was just one of hundreds of related projects going on in museums and galleries around the country at the time. As a new recruit to the National Maritime Museum’s Learning team, in 2005, I was lucky enough to be involved.

It was a brilliant, simple idea (not mine) – get museums from port cities around the country to partner with the National Maritime Museum, combine their collections and expertise, do some research and consultation, and create a definitive approach to teaching and learning about Transatlantic Slavery.  This simple idea became an influential project spanning nearly 10 years (until the money stopped in 2010…). It even managed to get Transatlantic Slavery onto the curriculum (until 2014….).

We spent a lot of time, money and meetings learning important lessons about representing the histories and legacies of Transatlantic Slavery and about teaching it to children and young people.These are some of them.  It’s by no means a definitive guide – just some of the (all important) basics, which often get lost in the debates and discourse surrounding this complex and difficult subject. Most of these principles can also be applied to  representation in displays, working with different audiences and to other histories.


Some lessons learned

Use the present to connect to the past: the legacies of Transatlantic Slavery are everywhere. In the music we listen to, the buildings in our towns and cities – and in the country piles, the people around us and the food we eat. Using the familiar to illustrate the relevance of this history to students’ own lives helps to hook them in and spark their curiosity.

‘Safe spaces’ for learning: this is a brutal and complex history. It can raise difficult questions, issues and feelings of guilt and blame. Being clear about ground rules at the start of sessions and workshops, and suggesting post-visit follow-ups back at school helps promote an atmosphere of trust and respect, and fosters discussion and debate.

Use objects – with care: we all know handling objects are a powerful resource for teaching history. All our good practice around using them for museum learning applies here. But handle with care. Conveying the gravitas behind the history is paramount. Consider using fewer objects for greater impact. Remind students that leg irons, whips, collars are instruments of torture and they may prefer not to touch them (even replicas). And while trying on helmets, hats and uniforms are all good for other object handling sessions, there is no room for the trying on of shackles!

The same applies to images, which are often derogatory and show violent or upsetting scenes. Reminding students that these are (usually) artists impressions and exploring why they were created can be useful for unpicking some of their inherent messages and the attitudes of the time, and for avoiding gratuity.

Humanise the history: the numbers associated with the history of Transatlantic Slavery are important – a legalised system that lasted hundreds of years and exploited millions of African men, women and children. But they are often too big to convey the weight of the history’s impact on people. Focusing on the experiences of a small number of individuals can help humanise a system that viewed African people as property. The lives of Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, for example, are well documented.

Create balance, foreground resistance:  Transatlantic Slavery is a history of exploitation but also one of survival. Providing a balance of perspectives – African and European – and  exploring the many ways in which African men, women and children resisted their enslavement (from keeping cultures alive through music, language and craft, to the underground railroad, the Maroons and Toussaint Louverture), maintained their dignity and played an essential part in Transatlantic Slavery’s eventual abolition, is key.

Create balance, look at what’s missing: like most histories, a balance of voices and perspectives has not been conveniently collected and preserved. Asking questions like Whose voices are being represented by the images or objects in your museum? What messages are they conveying? Whose voices are missing? Why? How can we find them? can all deepen understanding about multiple perspectives.

Take your time This is not a subject that can be rushed. Do a little well. Take time for reflection.

Younger children: Transatlantic Slavery can be approached with younger children by focusing on the building blocks they will need when they revisit it later in their (school) lives. We start teaching children maths with simple concepts like numbers, adding up and taking away, rather than algebra, pythagorus and vector theory; we can do the same with this difficult and complex history. Exploring West African countries and cultures; understanding where coffee, chocolate and sugar come from and how they end up in our supermarkets; investigating the history and meanings of family names; finding out about life on board ship or simply knowing where Europe, Africa and the Americas are on a world map are all useful starting topics.

Language is important:  the way we talk about the history reflects fundamentally important concepts and helps prevent stereotyping. For example, ‘enslaved’ not ‘slave’-  no-one chooses to be a slave, it’s something that someone does to someone else. ‘Atlantic crossing’, not ‘middle passage’ – it’s only the ‘middle’ passage if you start from a European perspective, from an African perspective it was the start of a horrific voyage. Avoid collective terms like ‘Africans’ or ‘Europeans’ where possible, humanise the history by talking about ‘men, women, children’. There are countless examples of careful use of language – but you get the idea.

Learning about Africa before Transatlantic Slavery is important: understanding something of the people affected by the history and their lives before slavery helps put events in context and foster connections with the past. Knowing that Africa is a diverse continent, made up of over 50 countries with people speaking over 1500 different languages, and a rich history  – which didn’t start with Transatlantic Slavery – helps humanise a history that can sometimes feel a bit long ago and far away.

Transatlantic Slavery was a particular type of slavery: it was an organised, legalised system, where one race exploited another over hundreds of years. This ‘chattel’ slavery de-humanised people, treating them as the property of others with no rights of their own, to be used, bought and sold – like cattle. Legacies such as racism and the decimation of many African countries still remain. It’s useful to draw and maintain the distinction between Transatlantic Slavery and other historical and contemporary forms of slavery.

Transatlantic Slavery is a shared history – it spans cultures and countries. 

Dig deep – most historical museum collections in Britain have a link to Transatlantic Slavery somewhere. It’s a history that generated untold wealth in Britain, over centuries. There were a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, for a long time! It is important to acknowledge its existence in our wider themes and stories.

Expertise is vital – a sound knowledge of the histories and legacies of Transatlantic Slavery is essential for the effective teaching and dissemination of the subject. The National Maritime Museum still provides annual training for the Learning and wider teams representing this history.


I’ve barely scratched the surface here – I could go on all day to be honest. Do get in touch if you’d like to know more or have something to add.

USI produced a website full of useful information and resources – it could do with a spruce up but the content is still spot on: