Science Museums and Science Centres

London’s Science Museum
Recently I had a few hours to kill so I went for a quick desultory spin around the Science Museum. I would have to say that my short experience at London’s Science Museum was akin to the experience I had at the Musee du Louvre: it was actually that sort of thing that seems so impressive that one is convinced that had one encountered these ideas as a young child it might have changed the course of one’s life greatly. Instead of a 5 metre tall tapestry or a 26m long dinosaur skeleton its…. A DOZEN PLANES AND HUNDRED GIANT JET ENGINES COLLECTED IN ONE BIG ROOM? How’s that for impressing your socks off? (Or am I just easily amused?…)

What other large institutional Science “Museums” or “Centres” had I visited in my life up to this point? I think the only other “Science” exhibition I had been to was the Science Centre in Singapore. And this is sad, because for me, there was always something alarmingly irrelevant about certain sections of the Science Centre in Singapore.

In a way, I’ve always found that the Singapore Science Centre was a strange place because it seems full of scripted, simplified second-hand stories of Science and hollow plastic models and replicas. Perhaps I was a bit strange, but even when I was in primary or secondary school, I was always intensely aware that each school trip or excursion must serve some underlying educational goal. And most of the time, my grim assessment would be that our excursion was nothing more as a jaunty bus ride, staring at some printed words on some mount board of which the students would not remember the day after), and then a trip to a fast food outlet before we headed back. Whilst I wouldn’t say I was particularly studious, still, privately I lamented that we usually did not learn as much from the experience as one would have expected and had mostly goofed off on the way there and back (I was excellent at doing that as well, I recall making a cup of soda pop explode all over the floor by squeezing it with my hands and then being in some sort of disgrace on the way back).

Later in life I was told that it is actually expected that most students will only retain a small amount of information taught in a class or lecture, so it is not to be expected that students will absorb all that much from an educational trip to a museum or science centre. So my worries were unfounded. Fair enough. So what is it then, that the Science Museum is for? Is it then for the physical experience of the science experiment or the scientific instrument, or object? Isn’t that we go to museums for, because that physical experience is still important?

And I suppose that is why it isn’t a “Singapore Science Museum”; because there is absolutely no attempt to trace a history of scientific discovery at at the Science Centre. What authenticity is there to speak of, when there is no context of the history of scientific findings, and when exhibits remain as a seemingingly random collection of scientific facts and amusements with all the prerequisite sideshow items – the plasma ball, the lightning generator, the whirlpools of water, the scattering of sand with sound waves. There are even exhibits that do not seem to have been updated by over fifteen years, such as their “internet chat room” exhibit (which also did not work).

Additionally, recent acquisitions at the Singapore Science Centre were not clearly contextualised or explained. I was in the “sound” gallery earlier in the year and was shocked to see a reactable in the exhibition space. It looked quite weatherbeaten and frazzled and I could only surmise that it had been there for some time and must have been acquired for a princely sum, only for it to languish in a dark corner of the Sound Gallery.

Poor reactable at the Singapore Science Centre
Having spent considerable time and resources in the past trying to build a reactable-type setup of my own, I was horrified to find a bunch of young children unwittingly beating on it like a drum! I immediately stopped the little children from abusing the reachable, rearranged the pieces, and in great exasperation spent the next fifteen minutes explaining to them and a few other nearby polytechnic students how the damn thing worked. Sadly, I could already see that the reactable was not properly calibrated from all the senseless kicking and shaking and banging it had endured in the exhibition room, so how would the exhibit ever make the point that this was actually a really really awesome thing?

Also, now this reminds me of this depressing exhibit:

The saddest gecko ever…
Looks like the gecko is so sad that he won’t even sit on his artificial rock or tree or gravel anymore. I am not sure whether exhibiting confiscated animals sends the right message – why were they not returned to the wild or sent to a wildlife facility/zoo instead of the Science Centre?

Alright enough griping of a sad situation. I suppose I do feel fortunate to be studying in an institution so close to all these museums in central london now. I suppose many notable inventions originate from Britain since it was leading the Industrial Revolution at one point, so naturally it had better have a really good Science Museum…

Science Museum London

Watt Engine
There were many magnificent engines in the main room, and in the next room, a sort of historical rundown of various innovations, right down to the small domestic devices and influence it had on popular culture.

2000 AD! LOOK INTO THE FUTURE!

Following which I took a detour and ended up in the ROCKETS section.

And a few wrong turns later, in the JET PLANE section.

British Airlines Plane

Cross section of a BA plane, which given my unfortunate predilection for flying BA over the last few years, was quite interesting to observe…

Model of Stansted Airport
Have you ever spent hours queuing in immigration and waiting to reenter the UK, staring at the that huge plastic membrane roof? This is the overview of the different sections divided up by walls, with one huge continuous roof supported by structural trees.

Supersonic Airliners
Domestic planes only formed a small portion as the better part of the collection was about commercial or military planes.

And then I was abruptly kicked out of the museum at 6pm when it closed. So this post ends abruptly here too.