Provoking, inspiring, educational are the three words that can best describe my emotions after spending two hours in the Wellcome Collection in London. The Wellcome Collection is a cultural venue where science and art coalesce in contemporary exhibitions that promote scientific discovery and interpretation. It is a place as they say “…… for the incurably curious”. The idea of science and art for some may convey images of abstract objet d’art only for discerning minds, but the Wellcome Collection is a creative presentation of authentic science that does not need you to be
an art critic to appreciate it. Take for example the obese life like figure that welcomes you at the
entrance to the permanent exhibition Medicine Now on Obesity titled “ I cannot help the way I feel”. The label reads “the image of the figure, coupled with the title, leads one into an open contemplation of the plight of the individual.”
The Collection is markedly different from the noisy interactive science centres where children are racing around pushing knobs and pulling handles of counterintuitive exhibits that attempt to dazzle visitors with science. The Collection is not the higher authority speaking down to visitors about what they should know about science, neither are there any blatant efforts to advance scientific literacy nor attempts to demystify science. The Collection could therefore be providing a progressive approach to oppose increasing claims that science centres and museums do not accurately and authentically portray science. Studies have shown that after excursions to science centres, although visitors leave with a more positive perception of science, they were also more likely to think that science has the answers to all problems and were oblivious to the features of the scientific process that involve reiteration, re-examination, experimentation, discussion and debate* . The question therefore is what and how do people learn from the Wellcome Collection?
As a science engagement tourist, I approach all my interactions with a view to what can I take from this that will work in the Malawian context. The malaria exhibition provoked me to think about possible low cost practical malaria exhibits for the science centre project at the Museum of Malawi – a history of malaria medicine in Malawi from chloroquine to SP to LA, mosquito repellents, malaria testing, and a trendy look at the improper use of mosquito nets for wedding dresses! In Malawi, we have an abundance of local painters, carvers, and musicians why not have them team up with scientists to produce artistic representations of the disease as it affects the Malawian population, of course always bearing mind who the target audience is.
There is no one exhibit at the Collection that took my fancy, I had several favourites: the personal DNA tests and kits where a man armed only with a credit card and internet connection scours the web to find out about his DNA sequence using all the available online tests and kits; or the Biometric identity – an interactive computer exhibit that collects your biometric data (height, fingerprint, iris pattern, pulse rate) and creates a unique graphic icon, or the galvanised steel and various found items that make up the periodic table, or Breathing In at the entrance foyer which is the result of Angela Palmer’s work on capturing the essence of the cleanest and dirtiest places on Earth.
There were things that also did not work so well – the audio chairs, where you can sit and listen to various talks, the few people I saw on these chairs did not sit on them for more 30 seconds. Some of the cabinets have drawers that people can open but I was surprised to come across drawers that had scientific papers – who would even read them!
In an interview with Dr.Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes, he described the Collection as “champions of other people’s expertise” and “not a place just to popularize what is already known”.
Food for thought
- Use collaborations to develop exhibits, use local talent, local artist, local researchers, and available local resources.
- Intriguing representations and beautiful aesthetics can be equally effective and low cost – not everything has to “manufactured” by a specialized exhibit design team.
- Create atmosphere and ambience that encourages people to engage with the exhibits.
- Labels providing basic information can be next to exhibits- more information can be put in display books that people can refer to.
- Feedback wall – visitors draw their interpretations.
What would you like displayed at a science exhibition in Malawi? Post your suggestions here.
* Rennie, L. J., & Williams, G. F. (2002). Science centers and scientific literacy: Promoting a relationship with science. Science Education, 86, 706-726
# Shetty, P. (2008). Home DNA test kits cause controversy. The Lancet, 371 (9626), 1739-1740