Net Results: My blood is boiling over the Science Gallery closure

TCD and the Government are abandoning young minds and a famed flagship project

The closure of the Science Gallery is easily the most short-sighted academic development decision TCD has made in a decade. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Back in an era when free-range children were the norm, I used to get on my single-gear, red bicycle and cycle across my California hometown to the Palo Alto Junior Museum.

It was in a perfect location, near the city’s children’s library with its reading garden, and next to Rinconada Park’s playgrounds and public pool. I’d often visit the museum after I’d gone for a swim or returned my library books.

Established in 1934, the first children’s museum west of the Mississippi, the Junior Museum (still there!) focused on science and nature and I adored it, especially after they added a small zoo. I could learn about geology, biology, native animals, botany, space, the environment. And it was free. I could wander in without it being a planned expedition involving parents. It was alluring, exciting, roving learning.

The Junior Museum triggered my lifelong interest in science, nature, environmentalism, astronomy and technology, and it came to my mind immediately when news broke of first Trinity College Dublin's extraordinary decision to shut down its Science Gallery and, second, the yet-again-likely cancellation of a national children's science museum.

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And it made me angry. So very, very angry. Angrier than I have been in a long time, about Ireland’s history of drearily shortsighted institutional decisions that allow bean-counting or site development or internal bickering or politics to full-on smack the support, development and creativity of young people.

Let’s start with the Science Gallery. A generation of children and teens have grown up with it as a stimulating part of their education, thanks to its embedded outreach policy, a foundational commitment. It has a strong Steam (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) pedigree with a fabulous emphasis on the arts. And it is free.

Place of inspiration

The gallery opened its doors in 2008 with aplomb (and I was thrilled to be asked to be on its advisory board). It is unique, so much so that it has galvanised many global minds and is now an international project (Science Gallery International) with TCD-inspired Science Galleries in Bengaluru, Melbourne, London, Rotterdam, Berlin, Atlanta, and Detroit.

The outpouring of social media grief over the pending closure in February is a measure of how many it has touched. Teachers, parents, students, tourists – some of whom noted they went on to study and then work in Stem, due to the gallery’s inspiring Steaminess.

Covid 19 mural on the window of the Science Gallery: As a TCD graduate and past donor, I am ashamed at the decision to close it down. Photograph: Alan Betson

Then there's the proposed Children's Museum, which I described as already having had a "long gestation" in an article back in 2007, when it had secured a proposed site for a dramatic, nautilus-shaped building near Heuston Station. Due for completion in 2010, it was originally supposed to go into the IFSC, announced and championed by then-tánaiste Mary Harney. In 2003.

Time passed, and the museum proposal was kicked on over to a planned development behind the National Concert Hall. Planning permission was given five – yes, five – years ago. Then, nada. The Office of Public Works applied for an extension but that was revoked last month after the Government introduced time restrictions on planning permissions.

Alas, the children’s museum has joined the Science Gallery in a detestable creative limbo. And my blood’s boiling.

Can adults, just for once, follow the lead of the kids and put two and two together? Can those in charge of government departments and agencies, universities and the multinational and indigenous companies reliant on a creative, diversely educated workforce just cop on for once, and see that these two projects have far greater significance to individuals, to young minds, to the community as a whole (and also the State and the economy) than being just “something to do” for young people?

Shame on TCD

At least the children who could have benefited from the endlessly cancelled children’s science museum had a decade-plus to grow up with the Science Gallery. Now that is cancelled, easily the most short-sighted academic development decision I have seen TCD make in a decade.

As a TCD graduate and past donor, I am ashamed. Not least as the gallery could be seen as an international fundraising jewel for TCD. It’s achieved international impact, with compelling Steam credentials at a time when these have never been as important to societies everywhere.

But who knows what happens now. History offers little comfort. A joint Science Gallery/children’s museum has been proposed, though how pathetic it would be for TCD to lose such an inspired creation, and one of its only points of visible, accessible public interaction and societal enrichment.

If they are conjoined, the Science Gallery – intended to target teens, not primary children – must retain its provocative and creatively reactive topical edge and not be diminished into a vague arty gesture within a children’s museum. The Government cannot set operational agendas or strip funding. Corporates need to pay attention here and offer financial support.

And any development needs to have free entry. Do not turn either entity into a walled-off domain for affluent children. Honestly, Ireland: let's save these important projects. Get this moving and for once do right by Ireland's young people.