Chris Horn: Will Ireland really squander the Science Gallery?

Innovative centre captures public imagination globally and TCD provost must save it

Cleaning the windows of the Science Gallery in the Naughton Institute in Trinity College Dublin: Why shut a source of global prestige? Photograph: Frank Miller

In 2004, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) announced public funding for five large research centres, including the CRANN nanotechnology centre at Trinity College Dublin.

Given the considerable commitment by the State, SFI stipulated that each centre’s funding was conditional on public outreach, emphasising the importance of engagement and public support for science.

In early 2006, then TCD provost Prof John Hegarty and Prof Mike Coey approached me to chair a fundraising board for the CRANN outreach project. While Ireland had long had a world-class engagement with school students through the iconic annual Young Scientists Competition, remarkably few then took up careers in engineering and science, favouring instead business, law and medicine.

Through the wonderful generosity of the Naughton family, a new building on Pearse Street to host the CRANN centre was being planned. The ground and first floors were allocated for public outreach. But how should this space be used for public engagement, and what exactly should happen within it?


Dublin and Ireland will squander a major cultural centre if it does actually close, as well as lose global prestige as the visionary founder of an international movement

Concurrently with SFI’s various outreach activities, the Government was then also considering a traditional science museum in Dublin. But we did not want the CRANN outreach project to be a passive archive of scientific artifacts, but instead a vibrant social space, encouraging frequent visits.

We also strongly felt that TCD should become more accessible to the general public. Full height glass panels at street level would stimulate curiosity.

The high footfall from the nearby Westland Row station and the new pedestrian entrance into TCD from Pearse Street would be critical. There should be no entrance fee, and the public should be free to visit as they wished.

Arts and science

I was concerned that fundraising for the staffing of any activities would be challenging, because our vision was then admittedly nebulous, and we could not point to anything similar anywhere.

Nevertheless our fundraising board successfully engaged with some enthusiastic private donors, and pitched to a number of corporates. Ultimately Ulster Bank bravely committed to becoming our lead corporate sponsor. By the summer of 2007, we had sufficient funds to hire our inaugural full time director, Michael John Gorman.

Both he and I wanted to echo the enlightenment spirit of the Renaissance. Our planned outreach should not be about Stem – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – but rather Steam, adding the arts to the mix. We decided to call the new initiative the Science Gallery.

The Science Gallery opened its inaugural exhibition, LightWave, in February 2008 to a dramatic public response.

Hegarty, Gorman and I had decided that a key element would be young academics and postgraduates as “mediators” not only to explain the exhibits, but also to informally engage with visiting families and school students about their work, why they chose science over other careers and, even yes, how much they expected to earn. In turn, this would help young researchers become even more publicly articulate, which should then also serve them well in their career when debating science and technology.

The Science Gallery has now hosted more than 30 topically themed exhibitions, stimulating public debate, media commentary and political interest. A prescient one in 2009 was “Infectious: Stay Away”, curated by Profs Luke O’Neill and Cliona O’Farrelly. Visitors wore electronic badges which lit if they became virtually infected by close proximity with others while exploring the exhibition.

Hundreds of exhibits illustrating the confluence of science and art have been shown over the years. I especially recall Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s explanation of mathematical 3D hyperbolic planes, in the form of intricate coral reef patterns, beautifully crocheted.

Worldwide delegates

By 2012, international science magazines such as New Scientist and Nature were writing about the uniquely novel Science Gallery in Dublin. We had delegations from universities worldwide.

Gorman and I decided to form an umbrella organisation, Science Gallery International (SGI), to create eight Science Galleries worldwide by 2020. Google kindly seeded SGI with a major corporate donation, and Gorman became its first director with myself as chair. Lynn Scarff then took over his leadership of Science Gallery Dublin.

Kings College London and the University of Melbourne quickly engaged with SGI. Today, Science Gallery London has an impressive facility opposite the Shard Tower, and Science Gallery Melbourne is ready to open an inspiring downtown building once the local pandemic lockdown is lifted.

In addition to the purpose-built buildings at Dublin, London and Melbourne, permanent Science Galleries are also planned at Bengaluru (Indian Institute of Science and partners); Detroit (Michigan State University); Atlanta (Emory University); Rotterdam (Erasmus MC); and Berlin (Technische Universität Berlin). In the interim, temporary exhibitions are organised.

Hegarty is no longer provost, Gorman moved to Munich in 2016, and I stepped down from SGI in 2017 after more than a decade on the Science Gallery initiative. I naturally continue to be a supporter, and I was thus very disturbed last Thursday to learn of the reported decision to close the Dublin Science Gallery.

Dublin and Ireland will squander a major cultural centre if it does actually close, as well as lose global prestige as the visionary founder of an international movement. I fervently hope that the new TCD provost, Linda Doyle, formerly professor of engineering and the arts and the Government can rapidly find an alternative and permanent solution.