It’s about time British manufacturing got the recognition it deserved. The government’s Make it in Great Britain campaign shows politicians have finally woken up; not just to the need to grow our manufacturing sector, but also to the fact that we already have a world-class industry.
The challenge and the aim of the campaign, which opened its flagship exhibition at the Science Museum in London this week, is to raise awareness of the innovative and successful British companies that make things. It’s been timed to coincide with the Olympics to add maximum international exposure as well as targeting young people in the UK with the hope of enticing them into a career in manufacturing.
It’s a very worthwhile exercise, given how often one still hears the phrase ‘We don’t make anything anymore’ thrown around and how often manufacturing firms highlight a skills shortage. It also fits in neatly with some of the other positive policy initiatives taken by BIS to promote the long-term health of the sector.
But if I’m honest I found myself a little disappointed with the exhibition itself. As someone who has the privilege of visiting manufacturers around the country, I know how interesting and exciting their facilities and products can be. And the Science Museum has years of experience in bringing tricky or slightly dry topics to life. So I was expecting something more than static models of aircraft wheels and sailing boats alongside displays about Coke and Mars factories.
Too many of the exhibits were devoid of interactive aspects or moving parts and some didn’t have enough information on display, occasionally reminiscent of a trade show stand. Suspending a McLaren F1 car upside down above an MP4-12C road car was an interesting idea but meant you couldn’t really get a good look at either. And I’m not sure many visitors will be that enthralled by seeing a recreation of the interior of a tube carriage when they’ve just spent a sweaty 30 minutes or more trapped inside one on their way to the museum.
Devising ways to enthuse kids and sceptical adults about manufacturing with limited space and resources must be a very difficult job. It was obvious the exhibition organisers had worked closely with the companies on display to get across exactly what they did, but I would have liked it to have been clearer as to why each object was important and how it worked. I would have liked to have seen some more of these machines in action. And I think there could have been more information about the challenges of engineering and building the products.
With these concerns in mind, I spoke to Ben Russell, curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum, who worked with the government, the participating companies and event agency Sledge to put together the exhibition. He made the fair point that everything was done on a much shorter time scale than was typical for the museum – a year from start to finish – and interactive exhibits in particular need a much longer development period to make sure they are sufficiently robust.
‘Interactivity with people is very, very difficult to do. People never respond to something exactly as you expect them to,’ he said. ‘And you’d be amazed at what kids can do to something. We’ve had companies build interactives, impressively engineered things, and within half a day something’s fallen off. We wanted to do a good show that would last.’
He also pointed out that putting a piece of technology in a museum inherently meant taking it out of context and not seeing it fulfilling the purpose for which it was designed. Instead, the museum attempts to tell the story behind an exhibit and the people involved in order to engage with visitors.
Perhaps I’m being unduly critical. I often exit museums wishing there had been more information available, but maybe it’s not realistic to expect curators to plaster exhibits with text when visitors come to see and not just to read about the artefacts on display. I also know there has to be a balance between interactivity, information and the physical constraints of a museum. And I’d encourage everyone to visit Make it in Great Britain if they get the chance.
Still, I can’t help but feel that young people in particular need to get close-up and hands-on if we expect them to feel the lure of engineering. Let’s hope that this exhibition will at least whet their appetites to discover more.