Dublin’s Exploration Station nearly 30 years in making

High-tech scientific exhibits set to prove huge draw for families, tourists and schools

Modern science centres are a huge draw for tourists but also for schools and family outings. File photograph: Getty Images

Modern science centres are a huge draw for tourists but also for schools and family outings. File photograph: Getty Images

 

The development of a state-of-the-art science centre for Dublin has been nearly 30 years in the making. Despite no end of good will and positive sentiment for the project it was left on the shelf, usually due to a claimed shortage of finance.

All of this will now be reversed by the second half of 2018 when the National Children’s Science Centre, aka the Exploration Station opens its doors. And it will have leap-frogged past earlier versions of digital-based interactive exhibits to give us the very latest in advanced technology.

The Office of Public Works identified the north wing of the National Concert Hall as a suitable location for the centre and planning for its development was lodged this morning.

Assuming that it clears planning hurdles, it will be a tremendous asset for Dublin and the country as a whole. These modern science centres are a huge draw for tourists but also for schools and family outings.

The most popular tourist attraction in Boston is not the wharf where the famous Tea Party took place, nor the city’s excellent New England Aquarium; it is the Boston Science Museum.

“We are the only country without a major science centre,” says Dr Danny O’Hare who chairs the Exploration Station board. “I used to call into science centres abroad and thought why can’t we have one of these in Dublin. It is marvellous it is happening,” he said.

Exhibits are targeted at children aged from four to 16 but will prove just as entertaining for those older than 16.

There will be more than 200 interactive exhibits in the large centre. The centrepiece undoubtedly will be the large planetarium with its 15m diameter dome positioned on the roof of the complex and offering 200 seats. It will be able to project high-definition images supported by a high-quality digital sound system.

Dr Sheila Gilheany of the Institute of Physics in Ireland was commissioned to look at exhibits for the centre and said there was no end of choice. Organisers expect they will need to spend €13 million to get the best into the Irish centre.

The exhibits are very high-tech, Dr Gilheany says, and this also means a big cost. A campaign gets under way from today to start raising the necessary money from corporates and from philanthropists.

Plans for how to bring science and engineering to the people are under development, she says. “Some of the things we would look at include the science of senses, linking this into the National Concert Hall to talk about music in a scientific sense.”

There may be sections looking at exploring ourselves, for example through sports science, and exploring the earth, looking at what forces shaped our planet and how we are reshaping it today.

“There will be a science show theatre where you can have performances and shows. We also plan to have special labs for school groups so they can do experiments.”

There is a huge amount of space available to the centre. The original building footprint took in old University College Dublin lecture halls and meeting rooms and this accounts for 4,800 sq m. New build space will offer another 3,000 sq m and the centre will co-opt the Real Tennis Court building and its 700 sq m for short-term events, Dr O’Hare said. It will be connected to the Exploration Station by an underground tunnel.

The designers are committed to making the centre as educationally relevant as possible by matching up to the existing school curriculum, he said. It should provide a stimulating interactive learning environment that will also help teachers.

The State Architect, Ciarán O’Connor, is leading the restoration, an,as is the way with OPW projects, huge care is being taken to preserve this historic building. The north wing dates to 1912-16 but there is an older 1800s building behind, he said.

“We are keeping all of the original lines and incorporating them into the new circulation,” Mr O’Connor said. “We have to enrich the present and honour the past. We have to be respectful to what we have got. There is history there.”

It is for this reason he was anxious to re-establish the view and access into Iveagh Gardens. This is what the original plans assumed but a wall was thrown up in 1909 that has stayed there until now.

There will be an entrance fee but this will not be allowed to discriminate against disadvantaged children and families, Dr O’Hare said. The goal is to provide equal opportunities for all children and part of its fundraising will be made available to ensure equal access, he said.

The running costs are expected to reach €3.8 million per year and the board plans to adopt “international best practice” with 50 per cent covered by trading revenue, 11 per cent from donations and 39 per cent from government funding.