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In Conversation with Michael John Gorman

Founding Director of BIOTOPIA, Michael John Gorman was our opening keynote for MuseumNext Sydney in April 2019. We caught up with him on his impressive work at BIOTOPIA and Science Gallery and talked about the role of play in museums.

Michael John Gorman

You’re the Founding Director of Biotopia, can you tell us a little about what that’s going to be?

Michael John Gorman: BIOTOPIA will be a new museum in Munich focussed on life sciences and environment. The rather ambitious goal of the museum is to reconfigure the relationship between humans and other species, which has a certain urgency at the moment of the “Sixth Extinction”.

Rather than the traditional museums of natural history, where humans were on the outside looking in, we are hoping that BIOTOPIA can trigger a perspective shift in the way visitors perceive themselves, as embedded within natural systems at all scales, from the gut microbiome to large scale ecosystems transformed by human activity.

There are three key ingredients that we feel are essential to BIOTOPIA: curiosity, empathy and agency. In relation to curiosity, we aim to nurture visitors’ innate curiosity about themselves and the world around them. In relation to empathy, we want to help people to experience a shift in perspectives, even stepping out of our human-centred perspectives on the world. In relation to agency, rather than paralyse people around the daunting environmental challenges we face, we aim to catalyse action and engagement.

I think many museums do curiosity pretty well, a few succeed in creating a shift in perspectives, and only very, very few succeed in relation to agency, which is the most difficult challenge. It requires new ways of thinking not just about the entrance experience of the museum and how to get people in the door, but also about the exit experience – what do you do next?

BIOTOPIA will open at a stunningly beautiful location at Nymphenburg Palace in Munich in 2025, surrounded by 200 hectares of park and botanic gardens. It’s a long way off, but we are not waiting for our new building to begin playing with the public – this year we will launch our annual BIOTOPIA festival, with the theme of EAT, exploring future and sustainable food and nutrition. We will also, in November, open our BIOTOPIA Lab, as an interim experimental space where we can prototype installations and activities that will involve the public in feeding into the planning of the future museum.

You’ve described it to me before as ‘a safe place for scientists, artists and designers to play’. What role will play have in Biotopia?

Michael John Gorman: I think museums can play a very important role in drawing people out of their comfort zones and default “work modes” and bringing them into unexpected, playful, collective experiences. Imagine a biologist and a designer working together in BIOTOPIA’s Biodesign Studio to create a pair of Lederhosen made from mushroom leather (we are located in Munich after all!). Or workshops on using spider silk as a material for shoes. BIOTOPIA will invite artists, scientists, designers and even chefs to participate in creative residencies, involving the public. These will be open ended and exploratory. I am personally more interested in this kind of open-ended play, which is at the heart of all creative and scientific processes, than in play guided by strict sets of rules.

As well as being an important part of the modus operandi of BIOTOPIA, play will also be part of our subject matter. We are a museum focussed on the relationships between humans and other species. We look at these relationships through the lens of behaviour – the colourful behaviours and activities that connect humans and other life forms. For example, eating, sleeping, communicating, flirting and so on. Play is a behaviour that humans share with many other species, particularly mammals and birds (insects and reptiles are usually not so great as playmates). We will have a neuroscience lab housed within the Biotopia museum where play and its role in learning is an important topic of investigation and where the public can participate in real research experiments to illuminate the question of why people (and other animals) play.

Prior to Biotopia you led Science Gallery Dublin and Science Gallery International, what role did play have in the tremendous success you enjoyed there?

Michael John Gorman: Play and humour were extremely important to the creation of Science Gallery – Science Gallery was envisaged as a porous membrane between the university and the city, drawing researchers out of their labs and drawing artists and the public into playful engagement around sometimes serious themes.

Science Gallery

MoMA design curator Paola Antonelli put it nicely when she said “A visit to the Science Gallery is enough to give one hope about our future. Scientists are reaching out to designers, artists, and writers not to perform empty vanity exercises, but rather to create solid, interdisciplinary teams that can cover all the scales and facets of nature. Together they engage in responsible tinkering, the equivalent of safe sex in the academic realm. And they prove that science not only has a heart, but also a sense of humor”.

Just to give one example, in Strange Weather, an exhibition exploring a post climate change future, visitors were invited to meet a career counsellor at the Climate Bureau to advise them on potential job opportunities enabled by climate change. Advice was cheerfully dispensed on whether you might like to learn a new language in order to converse with large numbers of climate refugees about to arrive on Ireland’s shores, or whether you might take an entrepreneurial approach and ply a new trade route in the newly opened Arctic Northwest Passage. By confronting people with possible futures in a playful and provocative way, you can catch them unawares, where they are probably already numbed to the conventional doom and gloom narratives about climate change.

I think science is often portrayed as “fun” – all those images we see in the media of astonished children touching glowing plasma globes, or having their hair stand on end with a Van der Graaf generator. I am personally opposed to this approach, in part because I think it is a misrepresentation of science, which is arguably more like the obsessive and deeply serious collaborative play of a Minecraft devotee than a laugh-a-minute clowning experience.

Presenting science as “fun” and infantilising it, whether in the media or in certain types of museums and science centres has arguably done a great deal of damage and potentially contributed to people switching off science. As learning theorist Mitchel Resnick has pointed out, people often dedicate great seriousness and long term focus to certain types of game experience, and that is much closer to the heart of scientific and artistic exploration.

So I think we really need to distinguish between humour, playfulness and fun. Humour, frequently quite dark humour, and playfulness were very important ingredients for Science Gallery. Humour often involves collisions of two incompatible perspectives on the world, creating a conflict of representations which triggers an eruption of laughter, as Arthur Koestler pointed out in his classic book The Act of Creation, and in a way is the essence of processes of creation and discovery in science and in art. Play, in humans and in other animals, is very important part of learning, which is often overlooked in formal schooling, but can be leveraged in intersectional public spaces like Science Gallery and Biotopia.

Humour and playfulness are highly culturally specific, with irony and irreverence being very predominant in Dublin where the first Science Gallery was created so it will be fascinating now to see how this plays out across the Science Gallery Network in development across the globe in different locations with different cultures of play and humour.

What advice do you have for a museum looking to communicate serious subjects with play?

Don’t underestimate your audience’s ability to engage deeply and play seriously – avoid trivial “fun” experiences which grow old very quickly. Go beyond mere gamification to consider how to create opportunities for open-ended, collaborative play. And allow space for failure and mistakes. Perhaps most importantly, encourage a spirit of playfulness to permeate the museum staff as well as the audience. Creating a playful culture can be extremely difficult in respectable, hierarchical and traditionally very risk-averse institutions, and may require new collaborations, bringing in artists, designers or other provocateurs from the outside to make mischief.

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