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January 20, 2008

Playing at being kids

After Katherine's visit to the Science Museum before Christmas, I thought I'd post about mine last week. Katherine saw a team of science show presenters who came out of the museum's kids galleries but now perform adult-orientated content. My trip was similar, and organised by the same 'Dana Centre' part of the museum: an adult's only evening for the newly refurbished Launch Pad gallery.

I enjoyed it (notes under the cut), but I'd be interested to know what other people think about this repackaging of kids-science for grown ups? I wonder if science popularisation is, in places, hued with a slightly childish aesthetic? Not everywhere and everything (not Dawkins and Greene et al); I'm thinking more about references to science fiction or chemistry set explosions (I wonder how many adults watch Brainiac?).

I'd already visited the new Launch Pad, and on the whole, I like it. There is a whole history to interactives in science museums, which the London Science Museum has been strongly involved in. I can bore for Britain on this topic, but I'll spare you that. Suffice to say that the new Launch Pad is the museum's fourth incarnation of the gallery, and with it I felt they'd gone back to its roots. I really liked that, but then I admit to being a fan of Exploratorium-style exhibits, and I do wonder if its a good thing museum design hasn't found much new since the 70s. It really worked for the adults only event, as most of us were young enough to have been to the first (or second) versions of Pad; but maybe there should be something new for our own kids? This isn't a rhetorical question, I genuinely don't know - I wonder if these issues fit into the nostalgic tenancies of education, especially science education?

Still, as I said, the new Pad gets a thumbs up from me.

The exhibits seem to have been designed with an eye on the way a mix of groups and individuals will interact with and around them; you can useually come at pieces from different directions, with several users at once. There are good, clear signs, though generally exhibits are designed to be quite intuitive to use, and "Explainers" walk around the gallery to help show off hidden tricks and add extra knowledge or ideas to visitor's play. Explainers also do small workshops based around exhibits - we saw an especially good one around a thermal imaging camera - as well as their world famous science shows (though they don't set fire to bubbles any more - sob).

Moreover, in stark difference from the last (basement) Launch Pad, the designers have clearly thought about the physical requirements for this sort of space. Good light. And a springy floor which is both comfortable to stand on for hours on end and absorbs sound (though, as a friend pointed out, it was RUBBISH for heels). Also, extensive buggy parking (though, not sure why if they are aiming to target older kids with the re-furb)

There's the odd flat-screen, but generally the 'interactive' of Launch Pad remains manual rather than digital, sometimes whole body immersion. There's even one you bite! (to listen to music via your teeth... oodles of fun). My favourite exhibits included the very beautiful pool of dry ice, a table of different shaped bubble wands, and 'turntable', a demo of the conservation of angular momentum where you control your speed spinning around sticking your bottom in or out - you get very dizzy. Some are new, some are old, many are re-developed. Generally though, they stick to the patterns set down by the Exloratorium (this is tempting, the Exploratorium publish 'cookbooks' on how to make their exhibits, this is why many science centers the world over are so alike).

But that's all notes about the gallery, and I'm supposed to be blogging about the adults-only event. We entered in the side entrance to the museum and ushered up the lift to the third floor (to much excitement of being in the museum after hours). We were then given a quick version of the briefing school groups have (basically don't run, don't eat or drink) and told that this evening there was a bar outside, some wii's to play with (the gallery is sponsored by Nintendo) and three scientists walking about to chat to. The gallery was fun enough for adults, I think that sort of Exploratorium exhibit appeals to the 20-35 age bracket. Plus, as I said earlier, it was nostalgia for those of us who'd been in the 80s. People played, and enjoyed it, though I suspect they were acting out as children rather than coming to the exhibits as their everyday selves. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, and people seemed to enjoy it (I did, I showed off my bubble skills lots). They should do more of these.

My only real criticism was the inclusions of scientists. They didn't have anything to do with the gallery (their research didn't really match the exhibits, or if it did, no one showed me how). From the looks of it, they didn't get much business. It would have, I think, been much better to have museum educational staff running workshops (like they do for the kids Science Nights - who wouldn't want to try to make a balloon rocket, or "snot" made from PVA glue, borax and green food colouring?!). The Science Museum have "Real! Live! Scientists!" on hand to chat to around a bar at a few of their adult events (the Natural History have similar approaches too) and I'm not sure about it myself. They could maybe still learn from the V&A after-hour events.