In his last day as CEO of Science Gallery International, Michael John Gorman addressed delegates at MuseumNext in Dublin, demonstrating how to use the abstract – such as virtual reality for chickens – to start a debate within a museum setting.
Michael-John: So how many of you were actually in Science Gallery last night? Ok, so I don’t really need to give this talk at all. But I’m actually in an interesting moment because this is my last day as CEO of Science Gallery International so I can say anything I want. And if there’s any of the team here and you need any transactions approved or anything like that, today’s the day, only a few hours left.
But it’s so exciting to be here and to really look both at the origins of Science Gallery and at the future of Science Gallery as it becomes a global network.
Behind me you can see an example of a project that was shown in Science Gallery which I think captures some of the idea of Science Gallery. It’s a heart re-animation by an artist called Helen [Piner] working with a scientist, a cardiac physiologist from Kings College, London called Mike Shattock.
And this was the first time Science Gallery ever collaborated with an abattoir, and it involved bringing pig hearts from pigs that were being killed for meat into the gallery really very much like a transplant operation and transplanting them into glassware, and then these hearts were reanimated and pumped blood for almost two hours through this piece of glassware as part of an exhibition called Oscillator which looked at oscillation in all of its forms.
This was a challenging experiment, people said oh, this is going to be horrifying for kids, but in fact kids actually loved it, it was actually the adults who were horrified by the experiment.
I want to talk a little bit about where Science Gallery came from. How many of you have actually been in this room? So, quite a few of you. This is what I believe is one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, and I’m not at all biased as a Dubliner. Trinity College, Dublin’s Long Room. And what more powerful metaphor could there be for the containment and the categorisation of knowledge and ideas than this perfect neo-Classical room.
And if those of you who’ve been there, the many of you, will have noticed an interesting thing as you come up the stairs into this room which is the smell. Did you notice the smell of the books, the smell of learning? It’s one of the most powerful evocative things of the Trinity’s library.
And what does that smell mean? It means a lack of ventilation. So Trinity is a very prestigious 400-year-old university founded by Queen Elizabeth I, and Trinity decided to do a very bold experiment in 2007 to create a space where ideas would be ventilated, the Science Gallery.
Many people knew Trinity College primarily for the railings around it, and Science Gallery was a bold move in creating a space that connected the university with the city, breaking down those railings and creating a place that is a ventilator for ideas and also a collider for ideas, so I think those are two concepts that I would like to play with, the ventilator, a place where ideas can be publicly ventilated and the collider, a place where you can smash together people from different backgrounds, from different perspectives, from different disciplines to come up with new ideas about the future.
And we talk about Science Gallery as a place where art and science collide, and it was a real journey to get the scientists to come on board with this idea. Originally Science Gallery was intended to be a place where the public, the ignorant public, would learn about the truth of science, and there were going to be Maxwell’s equations on the walls and people would come in and they would become informed about science, so we had to go on a real journey with the scientists to say actually, no, it’s about opening up science and the future to conversation at the boundaries between science and art.
Some of you yesterday may have seen this in the Science Gallery, this is a project called Second Livestock, virtual reality for chickens, and I think it’s a wonderful example of a project that provokes you, it makes you think about what kind of future we want to live in. The idea is that imagine if battery chickens or battery hens could feel like free-range chickens in virtual reality, you know, wouldn’t that be a wonderful existence.
So, for me, that’s great because it brings you into that space of conversation about what kind of world, what kind of industry do we want to have, and it’s a conversation provocation.
Moving from the age of containment characterised by the wonderful Trinity library, I think we’ve moved into what Mary Oxman has beautifully termed The Age of Entanglement. Mary Oxman is a designer, an artist working at MIT who’s made a fantastic project called The Silk Pavilion harnessing silkworms to create architectural structures, and she has recently published an article in the new journal, the Journal of Design Science, which looks at the entanglement between art, science, design, and technology, and she has created what she calls the [Creb] cycle of creativity, looking at how we move between these areas, between philosophy and investigation, to the applied areas of design and engineering.
So Science Gallery belongs very much to the age of entanglement, its mission is to ignite creativity and discovery where science and art collide, so based very much on this idea that the only way for new ideas to emerge is actually that collision of people from different backgrounds and disciplines, diversity drives innovation.
The focus of Science Gallery is on a young adult audience, this is an audience primarily of 15 to 25 year olds who traditionally shun science centres and science museums the world over.
At the very beginning when all of this was being really sort of dreamt up at a frenetic pace we decided that there were three simple ideas that should be at the core of everything we do in Science Gallery. These are, you could call them, core values, the idea of connection, participation, and surprise.
So, connection, every experience should offer a new opportunity for social connection. So a very simple example was from last night, the birthday paradox was a nice little nudge to a new kind of social encounter. Participation is the idea that Science Gallery is an opportunity to get involved, to contribute and not just to learn about what is going on in science and in art.
And the third one is the most difficult one to sustain which is the idea of surprise, capturing people’s imagination, and how do you actually provide surprise on an ongoing basis, extremely challenging.
In terms of connection, one of the most important ways that Science Gallery does this is through the mediators. This is an example of a conversation between on the right-hand side you have a student mediator from Trinity College who’s in conversation with two people about an installation, it’s an art installation involving the cells of a girl who died in 1968, but these are living cells, it’s a cell line. And this provokes all sorts of discussions, you know, is it ethical for us to use these living cells, do these belong to this girl’s body, who owns these cells, who owns the rights to them, how do we feel about the idea that we can purchase this cell line off the internet right now.
So Science Gallery is really all about opening up those kinds of conversations, and there’s actually … if you wanted to put it into more academic language you could talk about the role of the museum in providing social capital to visitors, providing opportunities for people to broaden their social networks, and there’s all sorts of interesting literature by people like Alan Daily about the role of social capital in informal education, and I think that the critical thing is not what you might see in Science Gallery but who you might meet.
Participation then, this is an example of a project where visitors were invited to give their blood to Science Gallery, it was called Blood Wars and it involved a phlebotomist who would take people’s blood and then we had gladiatorial combats of different people’s white blood cells stained either green or red, and you could actually see who had the most powerful immune system. This was de-participation, but it was also quite poignant because the … there’s some … somebody wants to get in I think, but there was … the artist who created Blood Wars was called Kathy High, and she suffers from Crohn’s Disease which means that her … she always wins when she plays Blood Wars because her immune system is too powerful.
And so this was an example of visitors really getting involved in a way which involved numerous faintings and so on.
The third element of surprise, I think this is a beautiful example, this was actually last week in London there was the ground-breaking ceremony for Science Gallery, London which was very exciting at Kings College, London, and I believe we may have Daniel Glazer from Science Gallery, London here somewhere. And they had a beautiful thing, they didn’t … they decided forget the pickaxes and the shovels, let’s create a spit crystal. So they had … everybody had to spit into a bucket and then there was … there’s an artist who is going to transform this spittle into a crystal which will then become part of the foundation of the Science Gallery in London, and part of the building where it’s located is also called The Spit. You know, this is something rather unexpected I think you’ll agree.
Ultimately Science Gallery is a platform for a creative community, it’s not a content provider but it’s a way of drawing ideas, drawing content from the community that surrounds it.
One of the ways it does this is through what you might call our collider, or a funnel for ideas where we generate almost all the projects that we do through open calls for ideas, and where we are constantly trying to turn visitors into members and participants who will perhaps one day have a contribution on the floor of the Science Gallery.
And we regard the public engagement as really the mid-point in a process which can often lead to further outcomes from research publications based on experiments run in the gallery, to commissioned artworks, to potentially prototypes for products, social projects, and touring exhibitions generated from the gallery.
Just to give you an example of the kinds of things that can be produced through these open calls, we did a project on synthetic biology, a very challenging and emerging theme, the exhibition was called Grow Your Own, and one of my favourite projects in it was called Self Made and involved human cheese, so the idea was that people could contribute their bacteria from various body parts, whether it was from your belly button or from your nose, we actually had bacteria from Hans Ulrich Oberist’s nose, and from Olafur Eliasson the artist’s tears used to make cheese and then you could actually experience other people’s cheese, you could smell other people’s cheese, you could only eat your own cheese. So we had a human cheese and wine evening.
And these are ideas that we couldn’t possibly dream up in the Science Gallery, they really rely on harvesting the ideas from our community. And this project generated a huge amount of global interest, and, again, Science Gallery became a platform for a discussion about the human microbiome as a result of this.
So after Science Gallery, Dublin was established for a number of years we began to hatch a plot of creating a global network of science galleries. Why? Well, one of the key reasons is that Science Gallery was the sort of membrane between the university and the city, drawing in ideas into this new kind of space, and we thought that, you know, wouldn’t it be exciting to have in a number of different cities the opportunity to draw on the creative ideas from the designers, from the artists, from the scientists in those cities, and open up the university community and the research community to those new interactions and then to be able to share those ideas globally.
And in each city this could have its own character drawing from the key strengths of that city, whether in healthcare or in design, and the opportunity to really unleash that creative potential seemed extraordinary.
We put together a few ideas on the backs of envelopes, and then we had a board member who said to me oh, you know … he was from Google and he said you know what, there’s somebody here from Google who could meet you next week in London, so I hastily put together a few slides, went off to Google in London, and I was chatting with someone in Google in marketing and somebody walked past the door, a senior Google executive as we were in the meeting and I was showing these slides and then he stepped into the room and he says ok, you know, it sounds interesting, cut to the chase. And I said well, you know, we’re thinking … we have this gallery in Dublin, art and science, and we’re thinking of creating a global network and, you know, we need about 600,000 Euros to get this off the ground, and I was about to say, you know, it would be wonderful if perhaps you might be involved in being a partner of maybe 200,000 but he cut me off and he said ok, send me a proposal for 600,000 Euros, make it three pages and I need it by Tuesday.
So I said ok, and I went off, wrote the proposal, and he came back with two lines of feedback on the proposal. He said can you make it two pages and can you round it up to a million Euro. So this was the first time I’d ever been bargained up in a pitch scenario. And so next thing we had Google on board as a founding supporter which was fantastic, and really kind of believing and taking a risk on this idea of the network, and then we had the opportunity to really engage with a number of partners who I’ll discuss in a moment.
But of course we had no idea how to create a global network. We had developed a venue in Dublin which was drawing on serendipitous connections, drawing on the university, but which was very much an organic place, a place which was powered by these collisions and by these people, but it’s a very different challenge to create a network where you’re harnessing the creativity, distributed creativity in multiple locations in major cities.
And so how do you make that shift from venue to network?
And another key shift, or key change in mindset that was really important was, you know, the goal was never to replicate the Dublin gallery in eight cities, the goal was always to see how can Dublin almost be a prototype where in each of these cities the gallery teams will be developing their own innovations, their own approaches, and where we will learn at least as much from them as they will learn from us.
We are really the first in a series of experiments at that interface between the university and the city, but how in each location can Science Gallery not be a replication but have relevance to the local community. Two key challenges. We did all sorts of, you know, business models and again in haste following this Google gift, and brainstorming, and Post-Its, and, you know, what is the value proposition that we bring to universities, how are they are partners, how do we create the appropriate network support organisation.
And then we had a tremendous opportunity which was that Kings College, London, one of the world’s great universities wanted to do something different on its fantastic campus at the foot of The Shard, the Guys campus on St Thomas’ Street right beside Guys Hospital. And the Kings College, London people were really interested in creating a new way to engage the public with the university, with the research in the university, and the timing was right, and suddenly we had an incredible opportunity because a network of one doesn’t feel extremely convincing as a network, suddenly with a partner in Kings College, London this began to feel like something that was exciting, and what an incredible site, right at the side … beside Borough market at the foot of The Shard.
So this is a shot from last week at Kings College, London. The beautiful thing about this shot is this used to be a McDonalds, and this was the McDonalds on St Thomas’ Street, I believe one of Europe’s first ever McDonalds on a healthcare campus, in the middle of The Shard, you see Daniel Glazer, the Director of Science Gallery, London. But what a beautiful thing for an emerging global network for the very first gallery to be actually replacing a McDonalds feels very, very satisfying. And also from the health point of view because Science Gallery, London will have a very strong focus on innovation in health and healthcare which at that location will be tremendous.
We also, I believe, have with us today Rose Hiscock who is the Founding Director of Science Gallery, Melbourne with the University of Melbourne, so that’s going to be an extraordinary project at Carlton in Melbourne. Rose is an outstanding cultural leader, formerly of the Powerhouse in Sydney, and, you know, this is the team who are going to show us the way in terms of Science Gallery.
We are developing a Science Gallery in Bangalore. This is the proposed site for Science Gallery in Bangalore, it’s still in development as you can see, but it is a sensational site in downtown Bangalore and we have excellent partners there with the Indian Institute of Science, the National Centre for Biological Sciences, and also the Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology. And I believe we have Mukund Thatte who is one of the key champions of the project from the National Centre for Biological Sciences with us today.
And Bangalore, obviously, is India’s science city, India’s technology city, and a place where transdisciplinarity is completely obvious and is really part of the fundamental way of working.
Science Gallery also goes international through touring exhibitions. We just completed an exhibition in the CCCB in Barcelona on human enhancement called Human Plus which was a fantastic venue to work with, and, you know, one of the most innovative cultural institutions that we’ve worked with. So I would second the person who said that not … you know, that there are some highly innovative cultural institutions in Spain and in Catalonia in particular, and touring … but one of the lessons that we’ve learnt is that it’s really important to tour and share our content with institutions that share the values of Science Gallery. We’ve had difficult experiences sometimes touring content, but with CCCB they coproduced and expanded upon the original concept of the Human Plus exhibition and developed a whole range of very engaging programmes around it that was tremendously exciting.
So Science Gallery is developing these different nodes worldwide which will generate content and also developing as I say tourists.
What are the key challenges and learnings? I suppose one of the big challenges is that, you know, universities are wonderful, they’re fantastic places, they have incredible experts and research strengths but they move slowly. You know, there’s a reason that they’ve been around for 400 years in some cases and Science Gallery moves at a very different pace, and in some ways that’s a very virtuous connection because Science Gallery serves as sort of a skunkworks or an experimental space for universities.
But in terms of actually growing a network and bringing people on board it often means that things don’t go quite as quickly as you would like. Also universities around the world have different levels of commitment to what’s sometimes called the third mission of the university, so engagement or impact or however it might be phrased, and often there’s a few visionaries within the university who really get excited about the idea but then there are also multiple levels of hierarchy.
The third challenge is when lawyers get involved, and it’s challenging but unfortunately when you’re doing projects which are multi-million Euro projects around the world at some point the lawyers do need to get involved, but it really is how do you balance the idea of having a … really a family, a community, a sharing of ideas and then the need to have kind of often quite arduous and painful legal agreements and so on which can slow things down.
So, you know, there are often quite, you know, barriers to entry and so on, and things that get in the way of the sharing of ideas which are often a challenge.
And then the final kind of challenge and opportunity is really how do you create the fertile conditions for a learning network, so, again, not replication but in fact learning from so that Dublin will be transformed as much by Bangalore as vice versa.
We went down a few false paths in the early days, so we thought ok, somebody told us we … you need to do process mapping, so we got consultants in and they mapped all the processes in Science Gallery, Dublin and we found out some really weird things. So it turned out for example that the whole mediator programme in Science Gallery which was at the core of the gallery was run by one part-time person who came in on Saturday mornings called Bevan, and Bevan was sensational, but on the other hand do … does the gallery in Bangalore need to know about the byzantine internal processes. Actually, no. It turns out that that isn’t really what they need to know, and in fact they need to know about the experiments, they need to know about the things that have been tried out in Science Gallery, and they need to be able to quickly take examples but most importantly they need to connect with the teams.
So the most important thing is, for example, these hangout sessions where you get, you know, this is Danny, Danny is amazing, he’s the Tech Manager of Science Gallery International but he is doing a hangout with the teams from the different galleries and they’re talking about, you know, setting up open call platforms for the network which was a simple thing but something that was reasonably quick to set up and was actually useful and valuable to have a digital open call platform so that network members could do their own open calls.
So sort of rather than mapping all the processes, focusing on what are the simple tools that can be useful, and what are the human connections through the network turned out to be much more valuable that having, you know, some sort of very huge, 1000-page manual on how to do a Science Gallery, absolutely no use.
So those are some of the key challenges, and it’s kind of … just to end, you know, this is at a very exciting point, and for me in terms of capturing the essence of what Science Gallery is, I find this quote from Yo-Yo Ma, The Chalice, very powerful. Yo-Yo Ma talks about his favourite example of how creativity works in science, and he says in ecology where two ecosystems meet such as the forest and the savanna the point of intersection is the site of edge effect. In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on one another you find the greatest diversity of life as well as the greatest number of new lifeforms.
And this idea of the edge space I think kind of captures what we are trying to create. An edge space where you have different ecosystems colliding, meeting, where you have a university meeting the city, where you have scientists meeting designers meeting artists, where you have the public, the young adults connecting with students entering new kinds of conversations.
And for me the future of Science Gallery is nothing less than the reinvention of the university. How can the concept of this collider actually be applied to the university, how can it infect the host, how can the university move from being a separator of ideas to becoming a collider? And it’s exciting to me that in fact some of our partners in the network are already … for example the University of Melbourne’s whole campaign now is about where ideas collide, and, you know, this is an idea of almost sort of taking Science Gallery as a microcosm for the future of the university and its role. And this is a radical reinvention but I think it’s a very exciting future.
And it’s in an exciting moment, you know I will be moving on tomorrow, it’s kind of poignant, emotional, but it’s been such a joy to work and to be part of building this emerging organism, the global Science Gallery network, and I’m really thrilled with the amazing group of leaders that are in place both in the galleries around the world and the new CEO of SGI Andrea [Bandelli] who is coming on board, he will start as CEO tomorrow, so it’s … I think there is a fertile ground.
And if I have one thing to say to you, to … also to the Science Galleries, it’s really to focus on being edgy, edgy in the sense of Yo-Yo Ma, not to lose the edge, but also to keep being the place where new ideas and new experiments happen, and let the new lifeforms emerge.
In his last day as CEO of Science Gallery International, Michael John Gorman addressed delegates at MuseumNext in Dublin, demonstrating how to use the abstract – such as virtual reality for chickens – to start a debate within a museum setting. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.