Hacking the Museum – the Informatics Team at #SMHack

On 21-22 February, four members of the Informatics team spent two days at our neighbour, the Science Museum, exploring their online collections with the invitation to build something “digital or physical, practical or whimsical, scholarly or punk rock”.

Photo showing pens and paper, laptop, sweets and coffee cups on a desk with sketches of ideas on the paper
Taking part in the #SMHack

The event was the first in a series of Hackathons to be put on by the Science Museum’s Digital Lab, and the goal was to think creatively about what “Museum+Tech” can mean. Some of the participants were pre-formed teams from organisations such as the Imperial War Museum, the Wellcome Collection, Penguin Books, the V&A, RedWeb, the Institute of Physics, and Night ZooKeeper. And some participants were freelancers or solo attendees who collaborated with others or formed teams of their own.

‘Team Dippy’ was made up of Ben Scott, Laurence Livermore, Sarah Vincent and Margaret Gold of the Informatics team, plus UI/UX designer Jill Parish who we met at the event (Jen Pullar of the Digital Collections Programme also features to the left of the image below).

Science Museum data hack 2017 Copyright Andrew Lewis Rosemary Beetle
The Museum’s team at #SMHack. Photograph courtesy of and © rosemarybeetle.

We joined the event knowing we wanted to compare our own online digital collections (at http://data.nhm.ac.uk/) and the Application Programming Interface (API) to access them, with what other Museums are doing.

Feeling inspired by the Science Museum Lates that would be taking place the next evening, we decided to develop a ‘Hot or Not’ style game for a selection of objects and specimens from four museums – the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the V&A, and the British Museum. As the hashtag for the event was #SMHack, we called our game ‘SMHackdown’, and you can find it on GitHub. Careful though, some people tell us it’s addictive!

Final presentations of what each of the teams had been working on took place on the second day  at 15.00, before a judging panel that included Andrew Lewis from the Technology Solutions team at the Museum (and thus excluded from voting for us naturally!).

Photograph from the back of the room showing the attendees of the event seated and looking at a projection on the screen at the front of the room, with one of the teams giving their presentation.
Teams presented their concepts to the other attendees 

The winners of the Next Big Thing category were Team RedWeb team for Museum Egg – a connected object you carry around your neck as you enjoy a museum, and at the end of your visit it will send information to a printer about the objects where you lingered the longest.

The winners of the Creative Prize  for the most beautiful or artistic entry went to a team formed at the event from Amphio, the Institute of Physics, a digital artist and two PhD candidates at the Royal College of Art (researching interactive data visualisation), Céline is a digital artist and designer – for their entry Waterfall, which slowly dripped collection images down in an interactive display with ambient music.

Last but not least, the Punk Prize went to Team SciMu 9000 for their robot-faced chatbot that helps visitors to search and find interesting objects in the Science Museum collection.  Go on, ask it something!


The event culminated with a show and tell of all of the projects in the Media Space of the Science Museum during their Lates event. We had a lot of fun showing museum-goers our game and asking them to have a play. This included a live screen showing which objects were being ‘hearted’ the most, and a tally of which of the four museums had their objects selected the most often.

Mind you, these scores are not the tiniest bit scientific – they definitely reflect the favourite objects of ‘Team Dippy’ from our time spent testing and demo-ing the game to museum goers at the Science Museum Lates. But you can change that – why not have a play and move your own favourite objects up the list!

Composite triptych image showing the results at the end of the hack day on the left, after the Lates event on the right, and people using the app in the middle.
Top hearts in the #SMHackdown app
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