Strange weather and new conversations at Science Gallery

22 Aug 2014

Lynn Scarff, director, Science Gallery

Science Gallery director Lynn Scarff says Science Gallery is changing the conversation about science in Ireland, and she wants more women to get involved.

When Science Gallery first opened its doors on Dublin’s Pearse Street in February 2008 as a place ‘where science and art collide’, it turned heads.

Fast forward to 2014 and with more than 30 exhibitions and upwards of 1.6m visits under its belt, the gallery is now an established cultural venue in Dublin.

Current director Lynn Scarff has been involved since the earliest days, and as Science Gallery enters its next phase of growth – building an international network – she wants more women in STEM to get involved.

Strangeness starts conversations

When we meet in the gallery’s buzzing cafe, it’s against the backdrop of the current Strange Weather exhibition, which is exploring future weather and climate.

The installations range from quirky (a hovering raindrop or a tornado catcher, anyone?) to hypothetical questionnaires that prompt serious thinking about the future of our planet and how we can deal with the impacts of climate change. And, as with all exhibitions there, mediators are on hand to talk about the installations.

Scarff hopes they will spark conversations, which she says has been the aim of the gallery from the beginning, and she believes having the cultural space to explore science and art is making public engagement with science more ‘adult.’

“I think before Science Gallery was on the map, the conversation around STEM and public engagement was along the lines of needing more young people in science subjects,” she says.

“Yes, that needs to happen, and it is happening, but that was never the hook on which we put everything. What Science Gallery came in to do was to ignite people’s curiosity, and to put science on the map as another aspect of our cultural lives. It’s about bringing the arts and science into conversation with each other and creating a creative platform for the outputs of this conversation to be shown to the public. We want science to be another aspect of our everyday conversations – in the same way that a really good, compelling 22-part TV series or a TED talk gives you something to talk about in the pub. I hope Science Gallery gives lots of people something intriguing and compelling they can talk to their friends about.”

All hands on deck

The exhibitions, which are designed with people aged 15-25 in mind (though in practice can engage a broader age group) often have a participative element. Scarff particularly enjoys the ‘Lab in the Gallery’ aspects, where members of the public can contribute to scientific studies. “I really like that people can come in and take part in experiments about love, how our brains work, or the fat in our bodies,” she says.

There have been some moments of slight panic, though, like when the roof started to leak just before the opening of the Strange Weather exhibition, Scarff recalls. “We had a mediator standing underneath with an umbrella, but it was OK, many people thought it was an installation,” she quips.

Talking science

Scarff, who is originally from Portmarnock in Dublin, has had a long-standing interest in both art and science, but chose science for formal study. Initially, she wanted to be a marine biologist, but instead opted for a natural sciences degree at Trinity College Dublin, where which she majored in zoology. Next she travelled, working as a wildlife manager in Australia before coming back to Ireland to work on freshwater habitats in Kerry.

There Scarff had something of an epiphany: “I discovered very quickly that being by myself in the middle of a field or a river counting things wasn’t actually for me,” she recalls. “I realised instead I enjoyed talking in or around the things I was doing.”

This prompted her to do a master’s in science communication at Dublin City University (at the time the course was run with Queen’s University Belfast and she moved into environmental education with Global Action Plan.

Today, Scarff is comfortable standing up and talking to crowds of people – she was recently recognised as a ‘great science communicator’ at ESOF2014 in Copenhagen – and she attributes that to her work with schoolchildren. “If you can walk in and face a room full of third-year secondary school students and get them engaged in environmental issues, giving talks to anyone else is easy,” she says.

Going global

When Scarff became science education officer at Trinity, the gallery was just an idea and she got involved from the start, moving to work with the gallery shortly afterwards. Last March, she became director when gallery founder Michael John Gorman moved to take up the post of CEO of Science Gallery International.

“The global aspect is the next step for Science Gallery, where Dublin will move to being one of eight galleries,” explains Scarff, listing London, New York, Venice, Bangalore and Melbourne among the future sites. “It is a spin-out and a great success story for Ireland, but now we need to make Dublin stand out – so as the first gallery, we are always going to be experimental and pushing boundaries as much as we can.”

Women encouraged to get involved

While Science Gallery has provided a new channel for scientists and science communicators in Ireland, Scarff would like to see more women getting involved in the exhibitions, events and public conversations. “I don’t think we are giving enough of a platform to women yet,” she says. “We always seem to have a lot of men involved in our events, and I would encourage women to step forward and get in touch.”

Strange Weather runs at Science Gallery Dublin until October. The next exhibition will be BloodWorks.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication