Exploration Station: can Dublin lead Europe with new centre?
The absence of an interactive science museum sets Dublin apart from most European capitals – but there might be an upside to Ireland’s tardiness
Freezing a flower in liquid nitrogen at the Science Gallery, Dublin. The Science Gallery was designed with a complementary project in mind, says its founding director. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Ireland’s failure to open a science centre, despite all the talk of “the knowledge economy”, is remarkable. The absence sets Dublin apart from most European capitals.
Dublin is home to numerous wrecks of proposed projects, however. A large complex called Exploration Station near Heuston Station moved closest to reality, but it sank alongside the property sector and banking bust shortly after a 2007 launch of architectural plans. Then, last November, an announcement by the Office of Public Works caught everyone by surprise. The old UCD complex adjacent to the National Concert Hall on Earlsfort Terrace is to be the new venue for a resurrected Exploration Station.
The OPW announced that refurbishment of the listed building will take three years. Séamus Bannon, executive director of Exploration Station, only heard in October about this new location. He is hoping the venue will open in 2017. It will be more modest in scale, he says, but will retain its original focus. Issues of staffing and finance have yet to be addressed, but there is plenty of goodwill.
“We were designed with that complementary project in mind,” says Michael John Gorman, founding director of the Science Gallery in Dublin. “The challenge now [for any future project] is one of funding and sustainability. But the appetite is certainly there.” The Science Gallery has proven that, with visitor numbers of more than 300,000 in 2012.
The Science Gallery has succeeded in attracting young adults, scoring well on return visits and offering a place for debate about cutting-edge and often controversial science. Gorman believes there is a gap in the market for a science centre.
There might yet be a silver lining to Ireland’s tardiness; the interactive centres that started with San Francisco’s Exploratorium in 1969 are now old-fashioned. Dublin could lead with a new kind of hub.
However, commentators fear that Exploration Station might be stuck in a time warp, with outdated goals and no ambitions to ask robust questions of science. Recruitment to the economy, it seems, might take precedence.
“To meet Government policy objectives,” says Bannon, “we need to relate the primary and Junior Cert curriculum to the 14 priority areas that have been identified by Science Foundation Ireland.”
The centre would “bring awareness of the relationship between the science that people do in school and the science that generates jobs and builds science and technology in the economy”.
Criticism of government policy
Brian Trench, part of an expert committee that drew up a proposal for a science centre in 2000, is critical of previous governments’ narrow focus on developing a pipeline of science graduates for the economy, with paltry attention given to social infrastructure to support it.
A science centre should also look at when things go awry, such as science’s underpinning of the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, for example, culminating in Nazi racist ideology.
“We can learn an awful lot from failures and mistakes, blind alleys and experiments that went wrong,” says Trench. “A science centre restricted to being part of national economic and educational policy programmes is old thinking.”
The success of Science Gallery, he believes, owes to giving people space to be creative and imaginative and to allow topics to be driven by the implications of contemporary science, not just applications.
Irish contributions to science
Ireland has made some impressive contributions to science, and there should be somewhere to tell those stories and to place them in contemporary science, with a look at issues such as, say, nutrition, food science or human genetics.
“We need a science museum for Dublin,” says Orla Kennedy, who set up Imaginosity in Sandyford, Dublin, for young children, “and it needs government support.”
Is the 2017 date for Exploration Station too ambitious? Kennedy says it often takes 10 years to establish such a centre. Government funding and sponsorship will be essential for that deadline to be met.
“We are looking at a world where children will probably have five jobs in their lifetimes. We need to teach our children lateral thinking skills and how to manipulate information they have to hand. An interactive museum can help children do that,” says Kennedy.
“I have met enough people, especially in the US, who have grown up with science museums and discovery centres and said it changed their life. We have to provide a place where kids can explore science.”
CHANGING ATTITUDES: SCIENCE CENTRAL
Rosemary Kevany, who began campaigning for a science museum in the Dublin docklands in the late 1980s, believes our attitude to science is one reason we have no science centre. Ireland’s traditional image is as a nation of literary scholars and artists, not scientists.
“For the first 10-15 years [a science centre] was seen as something irrelevant and boring, she says. The Irish way is art, dancing, literature, not science.”
The board of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority did not believe a science centre would attract enough visitors, and Kevany’s citizen advocacy group, Discovery, never got approval to develop a space in the CHQ building. The idea was out of step with the Celtic Tiger. The authority’s board desired “an excellent museum with a relationship to retail”. Kevany recalls how an official responded to the idea of an exhibition in CHQ explaining how the Aids virus works: “I want Prada. I don’t want HIV,” Kevany was told.
Thankfully, attitudes have shifted. The proposed Exploration Station near Heuston Station was to finally put things right. Its timing was unfortunate, however, and it stalled. “But it was already very late for this to be an agenda item,” says Brian Trench, a former lecturer in communications in DCU.
Other countries moved faster. Helsinki has Heureka, Belfast has W5, Bristol has At-Bristol and Copenhagen’s Experimentarium. Estonia recently opened the Ahhaa science centre.
Education expert Áine Hyland of UCC says in most countries science museums are run by local authorities with overall responsibility for public education. This is not so in Ireland, where schools are privately owned, usually by churches, and publicly funded. There is no locally funded educational structure to initiate a centre, she says, “and the problem with Irish education is that the focus is always on schooling as opposed to broader education”.