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January 26, 2009

Science Museums and Children's Science Books: Chickens, Egg, Egg, Chicken

Contemporary children's science books are often compared to museums. Their sense of narrative, their approach to visuals. Layout, design, tone, the assumed relationship between child reader and the expert knowledge presented to them: kids non-fiction tends to be quite 'museum-y'. Buckingham and Scanlon make this point, but they aren't the only ones.

The Eyewitness books are probably the best example of this. Indeed, many in this series are cross-branded with major international museums. The book below isn't Eyewitness but it makes the same point. Published in collaboration with one of the Japanese Science Museums, the yellow-shirted woman is a member of museum staff 'guiding' you thought the book.

inside of Japanese science book

Some recent UK-based museum-linked books have deviated from this slightly, perhaps more a matter of licensing a the museum's approach/ ideology rather than using images of their collections to provide an alternative trip through their galleries (e.g. some Science Museum books, or a lot from the Eden Project). Still, the point still stands, and there is a history to this: Aileen Fyfe's got a great essay about museum-linked part-works in her book about Victorian popular science.

The suggestion I want to make in this post however, is more that the opposite is also true: that science museum gallery design has been influenced by book design.

I first noticed this in the Tokyo Science Museum. This is a relatively newly refurbished science museum, and mixes its exhibits (be they natural history or history of science) alongside more fantastic interactive visualisation and mock-ups of scientific ideas and concepts. The photo below of Alice in Wonderland drawn out of tiny chemical notations (taken in their physics galleries) is in some respects iconic of this, but it many ways it is just a visual cue to a fictional reference - the issue of book design doesn't necessarily come into it. That said, I do think it is significant that it uses an illustration in the largely exhibit-based medium of the museum; part of the intrinsic tension science museums have when they attempt to display theoretical ideas.

Alice in chemistry land

Their Botany galleries there were the ones that really made me think I was in a book. Unfortunately the lighting was too 'dramatic' (why are museums so bleeding DARK these days?) for me to take a good shot. Its walls were structured with an illustration taking you through a sort of reductive pathway ‘into’ the cell. It was a little like I was walking through one of the Isotype publications Katherine has just posted about. I'm so annoyed I don't have a photo of this gallery, but really, it was like I was walking through this, this or even this, The gallery did have exhibits in cases dotted across the walls, but in many respects there were analogous to the use of photos in an Eyewitness book. Several parts of this museum seemed to be almost wallpapered with a kids science book, as illustration was used not only to decorate but structure (almost narrate) the gallery’ content. I was reminded that the National Museum of Scotland also placed illustrations behind exhibits (see this post), but the Toyko museum seemed to go further, with the physcial make up of galleries built with platforms and cut-aways which almost felt lifted from an Usbourne diagram, with steps, levels and see-through-floors which prompted you to walk around the galleries in a semi-explorative way highly reminiscent of the narrative cues used in your average glossy science double-page spread. They were certainly more like a book than a zoo or botanical garden.

So, Science Museums and Children's Science Books: Chickens, Egg, Egg, Chicken? I don't know, and maybe the similarities simply come down to both media trying to deal with science’s challenge of abstraction (or maybe I just reduce everything to kids science books these days), but it’s something to think about next time I'm at a museum.

January 16, 2009

Isotype books and sketches on show in Reading

I've now posted a few times about Marie Neurath's Isotype books for children, but I could resist passing on news of this latest exhibition, on show at the Department of Typography in Reading.


'If you could see inside' runs from 12 january to 20 March 2009, and is open to the public from Monday to Friday, 9 am to 4pm. Information on how to get to the department can be found here. The exhibit is part of the AHRC-funded Isotype Revisited project, and it focusses on the birth of the whole project of Isotype children's books, and on preparatory sketches and drawings associated with a cross-section of titles. (Click on the images below for larger versions.)


The beginnings of this work are recalled by Marie Neurath in a quote drawn from one of the exhibit panels: 'In the last months of Otto Neurath's life (1945) we worked on picture books for school use with a number of questions at the side; the answers to the questions had, in general, to be found by close study of the chart. We worked on the first ideas of children's books; a rough was made called "Just boxes", another "Tips for Tots". Years later these ideas were developed in books like "If you could see inside" and "This is how it works"' (Instructional Science 1973, p. 145).