The Wellcome Collection: provoking, inspiring, and educational

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

"I can not help the way I feel"

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?

Malaria drugs

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.

Personal DNA tests and kits

My biometric identity

Periodic table

Guess which is worn in day in coal-producing city of Linfen, China and Cape Grim, Tasmania.

Scientific paper in a drawer

Audio chairs - hardly used.

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

Science communication, a quick definition

The definition on Wikipedia is wrong! And I challenge you after reading this blog to revise the Wikipedia definition. Science communication is more than the “media aiming to talk about science with non-scientist.” (I like the addition of the word aiming in there like the media plans to but does not seem to quite get there). Anyway this isn’t meant to be a dig at Wikipedia. According to Burns, O’Conner and Stocklmayer* science communication is

“ the use of appropriate skills, media, activities, and dialogue to produce one or more of the following personal responses to science (the AEIOU vowel analogy): Awareness, Enjoyment, Interest, Opinion-forming, and Understanding”.

Or in the more simpler words of my 12 year old niece its the marketing of science. Its often referred to as public engagement, public understanding of science, science awareness, and science popularization. And it is a growing field, gaining more recognition because science and technology as the Asian tiger economies have shown is the key to economic development and POWER!

Who does it involve?
Several players – the media, public, policymakers and of course the scientists. Science communicators facilitate the activities and dialogue between the stakeholders . Notice I have used the word dialogue – the process of science communication is an exchange, a bilateral flow of information and interaction, it is not I repeat, scientists talking down to non-scientist. The language admittedly must be non-technical and jargon free but in no way does it have to be dumbed down.

What type of activities?
Radio programs, television programs, posters, exhibitions, science centres, science museums, science cafes, debates, seminars, public talks, press releases, movies, songs, paintings, drawings, comics, films, podcasts, magazines, newsletters, websites, presentations, books, blogs….. All these mediums are amenable to channelling all kinds of scientific content – genetics, biotechnology, engineering, mathematics, physics, geology, tropical medicine, ethics, statistics…
If you really think about it, science is being communicated to you all the time, you just might not be noticing it. Think of the laundry soap advert on television or the malaria transmission billboard on the highway or the radio jingle on washing your hands or what about Hollywood films like The Day After Tomorrow. Yes it is all science and it is being communicated to you all the time.

Want to learn more?
Unfortunately as far as I know there are no formal courses for science education or science journalism in Africa. There are the occasional workshops and meetings but I hope with the increasing amount of scientific research on the continent that academic institutions will see the need to develop such courses.

* Burns, T. W., O’Connor, D. J., Stocklmayer, S. M. Science Communication: A Contemporary Definition Public Understanding of Science 2003 12: 183-202