Having made science ‘cool’ at home, Dublin’s Science Gallery has global plans that are taking it as far afield as Bangalore, writes Ann O’Dea.
The highly acclaimed Science Gallery on Dublin’s Pearse Street has been bringing cutting-edge developments in science, technology and the arts to the general public since 2008, through interactive and award-winning exhibits, but the team behind the gallery now plans to replicate that successful model in a further eight countries.
A donation of €1m from Google in December 2011 was used to set up the Global Science Gallery Network, which plans to open similar galleries in key cities worldwide. India was chosen alongside the UK, Singapore, the United States, Australia and Russia for the first wave of science hubs to be launched.
And it is not difficult to see why the idea is meeting with some success. Here in Dublin, the gallery has become part of the arty tech and science ecosystem, thanks to its quite unique model, says founding director Michael John Gorman.
“When we opened in February 2008, one of the reasons was we felt there was a real need to inspire and engage more 15- to 25-year-old young adults around science, technology and engineering, and to get more people considering courses and careers in these areas,” he says. “Since then, I think there is a mind shift that has happened where now people actively seek out science-related events and entertainment.”
The Brian Cox phenomenon
He does concede this may be partly attributable to the Brian Cox phenomenon – the ultracool British particle physicist and TV celebrity – not to mention figures like Ireland’s own Dara O’Briain, comedian and broadcaster whose background is in mathematics and theoretical physics. Indeed, O’Briain sits on the gallery’s Leonardo Group, 50 ‘creative’ individuals, scientists, technologists, designers and artists who feed ideas into the exhibitions.
“It was a deliberate decision when we were starting out,” says Gorman. “Many science attractions around the world are focused on very young children and families, and on school groups. We made a decision that we would have a more adult engagement with science technology and the arts. There’s this widespread idea that science is for kids and art is for adults. I don’t know why that exists as a perception but it needs to be challenged.
“When we were setting up the gallery at the boundary of the university (Trinity College Dublin) it seemed like there was an opportunity for the gallery to be a porous membrane for the university and its researchers, and for all the exciting stuff going on behind the closed doors of labs, to bring that out to the public, and draw the public into interactions with the university. We were determined that we wouldn’t vandalise the science, we wouldn’t dumb it down. There was nothing out there like that.”
In 2012, 300,000 visitors went through the Science Gallery’s doors. “To put that into perspective, when we’re starting up the gallery back in 2007-2008, our target was 50,000 visitors a year,” says Gorman.
Not only that, but 2012 saw its exhibitions tour to Singapore, Manila, New York and London.
“At the beginning of June, we had three exhibitions opening in three continents in three weeks,” says Gorman. “We also ran Ireland’s largest ever TEdx event in September in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, which sold out and had 2,000 people listening to people talking about the future of science and technology. In a strange way science has become cool.”
It was because that concept was quite unique that the gallery felt it could replicate the model as a ‘plug in’ to universities in other key urban centres around the world.
Science Gallery and India
Today, excitement is building in India, where in November the Karnataka State Government signed a memorandum of understanding with Science Gallery, and is launching the feasibility analysis this month. A strong steering committee is already in place, with stakeholders like the Indian Institute of Science, the National Centre for Biological Sciences, and the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology already involved in the process.
And the Bangalore Science Gallery has other heavyweight backing, with none less than India’s leading businesswoman, self-made entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw a strong supporter of the initiative.
Often cited as India’s richest woman, Mazumdar-Shaw’s $800m business Biocon is one of India’s leading drug companies, with a workforce of some 6,000. She was included in Forbes’ The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women in 2012 and Time magazine’s The World’s Most Influential People in 2010. When I mentioned the Bangalore project on Twitter, to my surprise, she shot off a rapid and enthusiastic response.
Mazumdar-Shaw herself has strong Irish connections. She worked as a trainee manager in a biochemicals company in Cork back in the 1970s, before starting Biocon in the garage of a rented home in Bangalore in 1978, with seed capital of an equivalent $200 in today’s money. In 2001, Ireland’s Minister for Health at the time, Mary Harney, appointed Mazumdar-Shaw to the board of Science Foundation Ireland. Today she is Irish consul general in Bangalore.
She, too, tells me Bangalore was the obvious choice, as a “leading hub of information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology, not only in India, but in Asia.
“The Science Gallery project is a welcome and timely addition to Bangalore’s growing stature as India’s science and technology capital,” she says. “It provides an ideal platform for interactive and multidisciplinary learning and knowledge creation.”
“Conceptually, the Science Gallery is the perfect format for advancing scientific education that has a mindset of explorative research,” she continues. “As the Irish consul general in Bangalore, I am delighted to see this meaningful and path breaking bond between the two countries being catalysed by Trinity College.”
Science Gallery is funded by a combination of Trinity College Dublin support, Government support, corporate partnerships, foundations, philanthropy and earned income.
“These supporters allow us to keep entrance to Science Gallery free of charge, which was a key principle from the outset,” says Gorman.
The earned or operational revenue has grown to about a quarter of its funding, says Gorman, thanks to the growing success of the café, the retail space, corporate hire and of course the successful touring exhibitions. During the financial year 2010/2011, Science Gallery increased its annual turnover by 20pc from 2010 to €2.2m.
Back in Bangalore, Gorman says the feasibility analysis should be completed in April, and shortly thereafter the gallery should move to the development stage, but the UK is likely to pip them to the post. Closer to home, Science Gallery is in advanced discussions with King’s College, London, regarding the setting up of a Science Gallery on its Guy’s Hospital campus there, scheduled to open in 2015, close to the Tate modern and the Shard building – a suitably edgy location for a very cool concept.
A version of this interview first appeared in The Sunday Times on 27 January