This article looks at Time Travel Detectives, my recent youth activity for Parkes Library in New South Wales. For more on the concept of storylining a public library system’s youth offerings, see TimeQuest – A Scientific Romance for Libraries.
Let’s start with science. Australia’s new government might have decided there’s no need for a dedicated science minister, but scientific research is not going to simply stop in Australia. We need to encourage children and young people to develop that sense of wonder which impels scientific research around the world.
I’m currently based in Parkes, New South Wales. It’s a quiet rural town, but one which played a vital part in putting a man on the moon. Its radio telescope, celebrated in the movie The Dish, helped Neil Armstrong to make that giant leap back in 1969.
Invited to make school holiday activities for the September vacations in Parkes, I wanted to find something which respected the town’s history and scientific traditions, but also offered an adventure that looked forward as well as back.
My work is based on storytelling and immersive play. In creating a science-themed activity, I don’t seek to duplicate the work of science educators, but rather inspire and intrigue audiences with an adventure that would get them thinking about the scientific method and the practice of disciplined observation.
At the same time, I was intrigued by the idea of running a steampunk library activity. As Michael Moorcock’s 2009 review of Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection points out, the steampunk trend has already moved into what you might call the Blazing Saddles phase of self-interrogation and self-mockery – but I like the idea that libraries as pop-cultural players are gradually accelerating, so that beginning with zombies, we might move on to current trends and perhaps even find ourselves matching pace with the broader pop culture – so that new tropes, moods, and visions are generated within the world of libraries.
Put this all together, and what I’m saying is this: I aimed to use steampunk activities in libraries as a timely way of provoking people to think about the scientific method and the scientific sense of wonder.
As Albert Einstein put it, “The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science.”
Few artists working in Australia today embody that emotion, that sense of wonder, better than Peter Miller, the Melbournian sound designer and multimedia artist whose work stretches from art directing pop videos for Crowded House to work on Oscar-winning Hollywood movies like Rango.
I was lucky enough to see Peter’s new work Spirit Box as a prototype last year. It uses sophisticated mathematics to create digital images the evoke the era of old-time Victorian ghost hunters: a project that is both scientific in its practice and its theme of investigating unexplained phenomena.
I invited Peter to present Spirit Box and its companion piece Life Projector at an evening session in the Parkes Shire Library, but also asked him and his wife Wendy to become performers in a roleplay activity featuring the art works.
The activity broke down like this:
School groups came to the library and sat in the children’s area, where I turned up as a seriously-stressed out modern-day professor in a white coat, wandering over to various individuals in the group and discreetly sharing my worries about the time-travel process.
After explaining that the library had built a time portal, my librarian “assistant” and I took the studetns out into a tiled atrium which we had redecorated as a laboratory. There, we gave them some “evidence” of disturbances in the space-time continuum – mocked-up newspapers from 1873 with anachronistic references to the likes of Justin Bieber and Grand Theft Auto V.
Once the kids had identified all the anachronistic references in the newspapers – and spotted a common theme of mysterious creatures appearing and disappearing at sites around Parkes, we gave them items of Victorian dress-up to help them blend in with the people of 1873. (We told them that a single item of Victoriana, combined with a pseudo-English accent, would be enough to fool the people of the 19th century – but if the item was lost, a word was mispronounced, or a hat was removed, then the illusion would be broken and the Victorians would begin to suspect!).
A smoke machine and a couple of spotlights borrowed from the local dramatic society formed the “time portal” which took our brave travellers into 1873 – a darkened room set out with a formal dining table at which sat two rival professors, played by Peter Miller and his wife Wendy.
The professors, investigating the strange creatures which had been materialising around town, chatted with our young researchers before inviting them to see the Spirit Box and Life Projector; to ask questions and compare each machine.
Panic broke out when the professors realised that the walls of existence were becoming more permeable – that the creatures were not just materialising in the Spirit Box and Life Projector, but breaking through into reality. The kids used plastic specimen jars which we’d bought from a dollar shop to recover tiny plastic toys representing the creatures – air creatures trapped in a piece of netting, sea creatures immersed in a noxious gloop, and land creatures buried in a “soil” of crunched-up breakfast cereal.
The kids quicky whisked back to the present with their prizes, traded their Victorian dress-up for lab coats and goggles, and carefully recorded their finds on report forms, drawing and then annotating the images before they wrote up a report of the mission using a template we had designed.
At the conclusion of the task, we determined that we had captured all of the creatures which had broken through the time vortex…but not solved the wider mystery of why they had been materialising in 1873. To find out, kids had to return in part two of the event – the following week’s Big Box Battle!
Stay tuned to this blog for a discussion of Big Box Battle next time…