The Pot That Changed The World

The large whaling pot sits at the entrance of the Museum of Iron. Through this simple but impressive object we wanted to bring visitors together to explore new sides of Coalbrookdale's history.

Scénario utilisateur

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At the entrance of the Iron Museum sits a large cast iron whaling pot. This humble pot will become an interactive gateway to a dark story. A haunting voice, with sounds and projections, invites visitors to come closer, to peer into its depth and discover its story.

As the visitors look over the edge an atmospheric poem will begin. Visitors will discover the history of whaling, how the pot was used, why the animals were hunted and the importance of the trade within the global economy. Visually a stop motion animation will help transport the viewer to stormy seas and the hunt for blubber.

Intentions & Processes

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We originally wanted to to use the pot to convey different stories including the significance of the technological change of using coke rather than charcoal, and for the visitors to be able to choose which story they heard. However, due to time constraints we decided to focus on one story.

The whale story became the focus partly due to the strong visual possibilities but also because the pot we wanted to use to tell the story was a whaling pot. Our audience would remain the same, they would be families and curious adults that we hope would gather around the pot to hear the story and possibly start a conversation.

By focusing on one story we avoided the issue of multiple users attempting to trigger multiple stories. We also did not have to consider how the stop/start mechanism would work, and could focus on a simple trigger for the audio and animation content. A worry had been how a project would look inside a black cast iron pot, but this seemed to be unfounded as it made a lovely textured surface.

Whilst writing the content we realised that a straight narrative was quite boring, even if it did come from a pot. This led us to try our hand at poetry. Poetry was useful as it was able to convey a lot of information in a short form and hopefully hold the visitors’ attention.

From the start we had wanted to use stop-motion animation, using our groups’ strengths in illustration. As the group worked on hand-drawn images that slowly became a film, we realised this worked really well.

To perform the poem we enlisted the help of Matthew Ward (@historyneedsyou). He not only made us a fantastic recording of the very simple poem we had written but also wrote and performed his own version – a beautiful and atmospheric poem that covers the same themes relating the pot to the history of whaling. You can hear Matthews audio at Audioboo.

Matthew Ward’s poem about the Coalbrookdale Whaling Pot

The whaling pot is large enough to allow a whole family to stand around its rim, so we have suspended a projector (thanks to Birmingham University who lent it to Museomix) from the ceiling, which will project images onto the interior of the pot. A sound amplifier is attached to the pot, turning it into a huge speaker.

The animation will be triggered by the arrival of visitors, who will activate a PI sensor. When no visitors are close, the pot will emit bubbling sounds, representing the rendering of whale blubber. When visitors enter the space, the pot will « speak », inviting them to « Listen to my voice, gather round and hear my story, hark, and listen to me! Come closer, I have a story for you. Gather close but do not touch, for I am made of fire. Listen to my story of fire and oceans far. » When they arrive beside the pot, the animation, a stop motion representation of whaling, will be projected.

We hope the combination of closeness to the iron pot, which will be vibrating with sound, and with the animation, will both attract and grip the visitors, giving them a unique connection with what is after all, a humble utilitarian object, but which has a fascinating and rich story.

We hope that the same method of attracting interest and triggering a multimedia « label, » might be used on other iron pots scattered around the museum.

Outils et techniques

We wanted to keep it as simple as possible.


Paper, pens, scissors, iPhone with istop aapp, a projector, arduino, processing, PIR sensor, six laptops and a Mac Mini…

Audio: D1BT Bluetooth sound amplifier

Garage Band, Premiere

The help and advice from all the team, especially Dominic and the projector guy.

We can’t forget imagination and inspiration from the Coalbrookdale pot.


Here is a link to our final prototype in the space and here is our stop motion!

Strong points: 

1. I think we worked very well together, considering we’d never met, had very different personalities, skills and backgrounds, and at least three languages between us, but also by chance shared a lot of interests and passions! We also survived a team crisis and retained friendship and good humour!

2. We had loads of great ideas, were creative and imaginative.

3. Our « prototype » used technology in a way that facilitated access for everyone. The visitor didn’t have to have any technological ability or be able to use a smartphone or tablet. But also, the prototype didn’t patronise them or talk down to them. It was simply triggered by their presence and interest in the object.

4. Our idea wasn’t simply a digital label. It added something to the experience of the object, rather than merely explaining it.

5. The prototype narrative was original and entertaining.

6. Our idea could be replicated on other objects.

7. The prototype made use of the materiality of the object, using it as a speaker and a projection screen. This built a sensory relationship with the object that merely projecting the animation on the wall wouldn’t have.

8. Our idea wasn’t merely a digital button or switch.

9. The prototype was triggered by the visitor being interested in the object. It didn’t play relentlessly over and over.

10. Our prototype involved a gamut of inputs – graphics, animation, content, video, photography, code, electronics, fabrication, visitor experience.

 Weak points: 

1. Perhaps we could have communicated better and adopted clearer roles, even if these were temporary (e.g. « for the next hour, Ralph, you work on the blog and nothing else »). We might have managed ourselves better, drawing up lists of things to do and setting deadlines. Perhaps we were trying to be too polite, and none of wanted to be too pushy. Things happened more effectively when we forced Emma to finally boss us about a bit! Consensus is a great tool, but it can be inefficient when time is short. All this is easy to suggest in retrospect, and I know I was one of the main culprits in flitting from task to task, getting over-excited and not communicating well.

2. We should have had more progress meetings?

3. We sometimes didn’t make sure that we all understood what we were supposed to be doing. At the end, Caroline and I were still working on an animation/ video which wasn’t in fact needed at that time. This meant that I didn’t get to meet the public.

What could be done better?

Given the circumstances, I think we did an excellent job! I think ours was the best prototype… If we’d had had a year or two to develop the idea then of course it would have been even better!

The technological issues of using the pot as a speaker (i.e improving audio quality) and the linking of the motion sensor would have been solved with more time.

There were some Museomix organisational things that might be done differently – the physical separation of the guide/web/fablab teams didn’t always work I thought.

All the ideas we had on the way to our final adopted creation, most of which were great, weren’t recorded and so were lost. Perhaps we should have had a voice recorder so we could have looked back at them and retrieved some?

Foire aux questions

How does it work?
In its resting state the projection of the pot is of bubbling blubber and there is a loop of a soundtrack of bubbling and the voice of the pot calling visitors closer.
When the visitors come closer, close enough to peer into the pot and touch it the principal content will start.
Hopefully the poem and  as animation will draw the visitor closer and almost into the pot as it tells then its story. As the speaker used the surface of the pot to amplify the sound, it really did sound and feel like the pot is taking. The vibrations of the most will hourly add another layer to the experience.
Once the poem and animation are finished the resting state will resume.

 What’s the intended message/who is it aimed at?

We want the pot to tell its own story, to inform visitors in an entertaining way of how it was made and used, where it’s been and who would have used it.

It is aimed at families as this is one of the principal audience gross for the Museum of Iron. Consequently the animation and the poem are intentionally simple, using clear images and straight forward language. We wanted to make it as easy to understand as possible.

How did you decide on content (animation and poem)?

Our team was fortunate to have an illustrator who designs children’s trails for heritage organisations. Through her role she had come across a stop motion animation, and that became the inspiration for our projection.

For the content we had started work on straight narrative, but when we realised that Coalbrookdale & whale rhymed it became clear that a poem could be a quick, illustrative and fun way to convey our message.

What would you improve?

Though the programming for the sensor was finished we ran out of time to bring this together on gallery.
We really liked the quality of the animation projected on to the texture of the pot. If we had more time we would have worked on the poem and honed the language and message.
The type of speaker used added another layer to the visitors’ experience, introducing touch to the audio and visual, it would be lovely to add smell as well. It could be another sense to pull visitors into the pot.
Finally, though the type of speaker added to the experience through its vibrations this also distorted the quality of the audio and if repeated we would consider having another speaker perhaps above the pot.

How could this be expanded or used elsewhere?
Different pots could tell their own story. The Coalbrookdale pot was made in all shapes and sizes and used for a variety of reasons, from small cooking pots to large laundry pots. This method of story telling could be used to tell them all. Furthermore it could also be used to tell the story of the people who made them and how it was made. We feel that using this method a tactile and iconic object for the museum could really come to life for the visitors.


Kathleen McIlvenna « Content » @kathleenmcil

Emma Metcalfe « Graphics » @emillustration

Mark Palmer « Tech »

Caroline Claisse « Fabrication »

Laura Gottlieb « Narrative Environment »

Ralph Mills « Comms » @archaeologyman