Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Manchester Science Festival was one of the most popular science festivals in the UK and had become a key event in the city’s cultural calendar. Here, the Science and Industry Museum’s head of festival and events, Ella Wild, discusses the decision to take the festival online and the benefits that audiences can find in digital events.

While coronavirus has undoubtedly defined the past year and will continue to do so for months to come, climate change remains the defining issue for the 21st century and demands our urgent attention. I started at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum in January 2020 and was excited to get stuck into a project which is taking such a bold approach to climate change as well as spearheading conversations with the aim of inspiring solutions.

It’s been a challenging but exciting time to be part of an events team that is planning a festival against the backdrop of a global pandemic and venue closures. Originally, we had intended to host Manchester Science Festival as a physical event. Museums provide a vitally important public service and the community’s appetite to return was demonstrated in 2020 when we safely welcomed more than 36,000 visitors during our brief reopening between August and October.

Ella WildHowever, when closing our doors for the second time last year, it was clear that the festival needed to be reimagined in the face of the ongoing pandemic. We made the decision to move activities online, allowing us to bring the joy of the festival directly into people’s homes through a programme of digital exhibitions, talks and online learning resources.

As with so many institutions where visitors are the lifeblood, the past year has been difficult for the Science and Industry Museum but, by vastly improving our digital capabilities, we have continued to reach and inspire audiences and ensure we remain relevant while so much of our usual offer is inaccessible.

Manchester Science Festival is the biggest digital events programme we have undertaken and will kick off with our largest ever online exhibition. In partnership with the Royal Photographic Society, we’re exhibiting the winners of its prestigious Science Photographer of the Year competition, alongside 79 shortlisted and standout photographs. For the first time this year, the category of ‘Climate Change’ was introduced to reflect the theme of the festival.

Helen Czerski - Credit Alex BrennerAlongside this, a packed programme of digital talks will give viewers the opportunity to hear from well known names, such as Brian Eno, and scientists at the forefront of the fight against climate change including Manchester-born physicist Helen Czerski, and voices from Greater Manchester’s communities, including Mayor of Salford Paul Dennett, director of Open Kitchen MCR, Corin Bell and Ayesha Arif, community director at Bury Asian Women’s Centre.

Each event will offer a different perspective on the climate debate and help to reframe conversations positively by empowering audiences to make a difference.

We know we can’t replace the atmosphere of a physical visit to the museum and festival (and we wouldn’t want to) but while in-person activities are temporarily off the cards, there are benefits to this year’s digital format.

James Lovelock - Credit Science Museum Group CollectionOnline platforms allow us to reach new audiences by removing barriers, such as location and travel, that can prevent people attending in person. Enjoying the festival from the comfort of someone’s own home can also increase people’s level of engagement with many feeling more comfortable to submit questions virtually. Climate change is often seen as an insurmountable subject but, by giving people the chance to explore it at their leisure and offering the flexibility to pause, rewind and re-absorb information, this complex topic becomes more digestible.

Manchester Science Festival might look and feel different this year, but I’m delighted that we’ve been able to preserve much of the content we had originally planned by offering this engaging programme of digital events. Looking ahead to when we can welcome visitors back, we’re aspiring to host further socially distanced, in-person activities, including UK premieres and a dedicated special events programme for families that explores climate further and supports Manchester’s cultural, economic and skills recovery. 

By Ella Wild, Head of Festival and Events at the Science and Industry Museum, Manchester

Main image: The Dead River by Abdul Momin. Royal Photographic Society shortlisted entry

Royal Photographic Society’s Science Photographer of the Year competition

For the first time this year, a new Climate Change category was introduced to reflect the theme of Manchester Science Festival. The winners can now be viewed online alongside 75 shortlisted and standout photographs in a captivating visual art experience which digitally showcases the global story of climate change and unveils how science, technology and engineering are addressing this urgent issue.

The winners were chosen from more than 1,000 entries submitted for free by both amateur and professional photographers. They are:

  • Science Photographer of the Year (General Science): Simon Brown, Orthophoto of SS Thistlegorm, an intricate reconstruction of a shipwreck using photogrammetry, the technique of making measurement from photographs. 
  • Young Science Photographer of the Year (General Science): Katy Appleton (12), Rainbow Shadow Selfie, that captures the beauty of a common phenomena of light splitting through a prism.
  • Science Photographer of the Year (Climate Change): Sue Flood, North Pole Under Water  
  • Young Science Photographer of the Year (Climate Change): Raymond Zhang (11), Apollo’s Emissary, which shows one of the largest solar power stations in western China.


Manchester Science FestivalManchester Science Festival, produced by the Science and Industry Museum, takes place digitally until February 21, 2021, and explores the theme of climate and ideas for a better world. The full Manchester Science Festival programme can be seen here. All events are free but tickets need to be booked online.