Gallery experiment proves theory that science can be fun

 

NET RESULTS:TCD’s Science Gallery has had more than 500,000 visitors since it opened its doors two years ago, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

TWO YEARS ago, Trinity College Dublin’s Science Gallery opened its doors with energy and ambition. It announced that it would be “the place where ideas meet and opinions collide”, where science and technology would mingle with the arts, culture, society and philosophy (though not always comfortably, and deliberately so).

It would have workshops, talks, a book club, exhibitions, press briefings on topical science and even science cabaret. To encourage people to wander in, stick around, chat and return again, the Science Gallery would have a cafe, WiFi, science magazines to peruse and a shop with books and curiosities.

The gallery said it hoped to have 50,000 visitors in its first year – a significant number even if you allow that its location at the Westland Row end of TCD means academics and students would probably be regular visitors. But that is still more than 4,000 people a month – for a facility that would not always have an exhibit in place.

The gallery kicked off spectacularly with its Light Wave exhibition in February 2008. People queued outside to gain entry during much of its run. Other popular events included an exhibit about robots and one on the science of bubbles, which had a particular appeal to families.

Meanwhile, the little Italian cafe, with its excellent coffees and yummy food, has been a big draw. If you are passing by on Pearse Street at lunchtime, you can see chatty groups at full tables through the gallery’s glass frontage. Throughout the day, the cafe draws people who just want to meet friends or sit with a magazine or laptop and a latte.

As for visitors, the Science Gallery’s original goal of a footfall of 50,000 in its first year proved to be astonishingly modest. More than twice that number paid a visit in its first year: there were 120,000 visitors overall, which works out at an extraordinary 10,000 a month.

Two years later, visitor numbers have passed 500,000, signalling that the Science Gallery has found a secure place with locals and is also a growing attraction on the tourist trail.

The gallery has done something extremely difficult: it has made science and technology accessible, intriguing,

challenging, thought-provoking and, dare I say it, popular.

At a time when schools and universities – and societies across the world as a whole – struggle with getting teenagers and young adults to engage with science, the Science Gallery is doing it with aplomb (this age group is its target audience).

But it has not been without controversy, of course. There have been accusations that the science isn’t scientific enough at times – that some popular science exhibits are more popular than science.

Some felt that, as there was no proper science museum in Ireland, the Science Gallery should be about science in a more traditional and hardcore way. The quirkiness of some exhibits and approaches can grate or delight, depending on the person.

Personally, I liked the general tenor of what the Science Gallery seemed to want to do from the very start, though I too had some reservations about whether it should go more for, shall we say, funkiness than physics – a kind of Wired magazine approach to science and tech.

But I think the sustained level of interest in its exhibits, the attendance at science-oriented talks and workshops, the support of so many in Ireland’s science community – not to mention the arts and other areas – and the interest from experts in other parts of the world prove that this approach works.

The gallery’s mash-ups between disciplines, its unexpected juxtapositions and its willingness to prod people’s comfort

zones make science interesting and thought-provoking for people from a wide range of ages and backgrounds.

One of the things I like about the Science Gallery is that it looks to the entire community for ideas, proposals, collaborations, performances and exhibits. The gallery has a call out right now for proposals for a summer exhibition called Biorhythm: Music and the Body. The deadline is March 30th.

Science Gallery director Michael John Gorman is looking for proposals that intrigue on topics such as the physiology and neuroscience of music and dance, how we experience the world as sound, music and the emotions, the therapeutics of music, white noise and infrasonics, using the body as an instrument – virtually anything that might touch on music, science, technology and the body.

The gallery wants to take works, experiments and ideas created in response to this call and fold them into the exhibition. If this rings your chimes, you can get more information at sciencegallery.com\biorhythm.

In the meantime, the current exhibition, Love Lab: The Science of Desire, runs until March 12th. Visitors can participate in experiments, have their DNA tested and have lots of fun learning about the weird science of love and desire from the unique perspective of the Science Gallery.


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