The Science Museum

The Science Museum it calls itself and I think of it as such, but I know that there are others in the world as well as the one in London and I'm told that others are quite good too... Its half term, so I took Daniel and Naomi and Mr Weasel to South Kensington for the day. Its a fair trip: Coton to Cambridge, train to Kings Cross (full:we sat on the floor - on the way back even more full and we struggled to find room on the floor!), underground to South Ken, then the long subway to the Museum: about 2:15h in all.

But its worth it. Not only does it have some great galleries, it has some great play areas (ahem, I mean of course "educational facilities cunningly disguised as play"). Sadly the main hall (most of the steam engines) was shut for refurb (during half term? are they mad?), and they were on strike on wednesday, which probably contributed to the crowds - the LaunchPad was very crowded, the Garden less so but we had to queue a bit. And the children (7 years old) enjoyed these two areas so much we barely had time to wander the galleries. Which brings me on to my rant...

When I were a lad, ee, we didn't have none of this play areas, we had galleries of models of the different sorts of steam engines and you could twirl the knobs and watch them work. I have dim and distant memories of this (and of slam-door trains filled with cigarette smoke) - overlain with more recent memories of doing it as an adult. Sadly those galleries are the ones shut for refurb. But the Wellcome wing isn't shut, and that wing is really really weird. A large bit of it is the IMAX cinema - fair enough I suppose, though rather peripherally science, more entertainment - and it does seem to make walking round the rest of it tricky, with odd changes of level, and no stairs where you would expect stairs. The odd bit is the funny crawling lights with messages on (Daniel loved it, but I can't see the point) and the pattern pod, and the "games" bit upstairs.

The pattern pod: intrinsically, a nice idea. There is a computer touch-screen that makes 5-symmetrical versions of the dots you draw. Nice; always overcrowded. There was a "fractals" thing with drop-in keys that grew patterns on the screen - but always the same (and no explanation). And there are some foam-rubber magnetic Penrose Tiles for you to tesselate. And there is a computer-touch screen to guide you through all of this... which is where I start to get mad. Because the touch-screen explanation is hopelessly, laughably inadequate. It mentions the Penrose tilings, but doesn't tell you how to do it. There are *only two pages* of screen, which only contain a few words, about this. The lost opportunity is terrible. There is no explanation of their properties; of the history; etc etc. Why not? There would be space in the machine for endless sub-levels of explanatory text for the interested. And don't tell me its because they are short of money: the Wellcome wing drips money (or did when first done; its fraying at the edges a teensy bit). Possibly the idea is that rather than feeding people science, you allow it to infuse gently. Possible... but I don't think its sensible. Not having a more detailed explanation available, when it could be, unobtrusively, just doesn't make sense.

Then I dragged them off under protest to look at Puffing Billy and the Rocket and they loved that too.


Anonymous said...

The disadvantage with putting up lots of information on computer terminals isn't only that it's more work for the staff. It also means that interested people may tie up a terminal for a long time, and for a museum designed for lots of people that is unfortunately a serious drawback.

Maybe museums should instead sell CD:s with copies of their computer exhibits, with all the deeper levels of explanations that people can bring home and play with?

William M. Connolley said...

Hmmm... I didn't think of the tying-up-time aspect. At the moment, though, its not like that: the displays are so shallow that they are barely used.

As an alternative to CD's (fiddly) they could put it on their website... but I found nothing about Penrose there. Of course, once you're on the web, there would be no reason to stop at just the sci mus. But the 5-fold-pattern game is available from http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/on-line/wellcome-wing/pattern-pod/interactives.asp (click on "pattern wall") and produces just what is available there, via a shockwave app. Try it!