Heard the one about peat fibre?

December 5, 2003

At the new Dana Centre, science is performed and animated. On a recent visit, Raphael Salkie gets to grips with a self-administering enema syringe

It looks like any chic London coffee bar, until you notice strange words all over the table and the windows: reactical, angriculture, intellectruism and many more. Look up and you see more spotlights and projectors than the average TV studio. An object appears on a large screen at one end, and an enthusiastic man with a mike invites us to guess what it is by voting with our handheld device. The object turns out to be a self-administering enema syringe (I voted for "opium smoking device", so don't ever accept a puff from me if you value your oral hygiene). This, he tells us, is one of 350 or so enema syringes that London's Science Museum has in its reserve collection. A few people titter, and he goes on to puzzle and amuse us with a 17th-century scolds bridle and a fake torture device (apparently all the rage in tourist gift shops across Europe in the 1920s). I wait for the entertainer to finish his act with the words "I've been Dave, you've been a great audience, thank you" - and sure enough, that's exactly what he says.

So what is the Dana Centre? Lindsay Sharp, director of the Science Museum, describes it as "a working laboratory for science dialogue", and that is part of the story. It's a place where science is performed, debated, animated and personalised. Last week's preview featured a fashion show with a difference: we saw hi-tech cooling jackets as used by the military, with a network of tubes to spread ice-cold water round them. We tried on wonderfully warm coats made of peat fibre "twice as warm as sheep's wool, and with an outstanding capacity for thermal insulation". The chairs were then rearranged for a debate about whether we should have fluoride in water. Meanwhile, four actors did a wild play based on the scientific debunking of Father Christmas: with more than 2 billion children in the world, Santa would have to travel 6,000 times the speed of sound to spend a micro-second in each household, which is rather implausible. Then there was the Amodal Pod, a bizarre project in which text messages from around the world are converted into beams of light and illuminate the Japanese city of Yamaguchi.

A central theme is art and science coming together. The French would know exactly what to call this new centre: they would say an " espace culturo-scientifique ". The French are familiar with the notion of "spaces" provided by the state where paid workers and members of the public can organise interesting cultural events. For years now Paris has had both the Pompidou Centre and the superb science exhibition centre near Porte de la Villette (the word "museum" is too dry and dusty). Until recently, the Science Museum seemed to have changed little since I was a child: I was awestruck then, but rarely since.

At last the Science Museum has joined with a group of other organisations and sponsors to bring science to people and people to science. Karen Davies, the project team leader, sees the Dana Centre as an adult venue where scientists and the public can meet for discussion and entertainment on equal terms. The centre will host performance events such as a puppet show about genetically modified foods that the team piloted recently. Other devices include talk show formats, games such as a pub quiz about recent science news, with the questions designed to start a discussion rather than supply black-and-white answers, and Democs ("Deliberative Meetings Organised by Citizens"), a board game designed by the New Economics Foundation to promote constructive debate about matters of public policy.

Exhibitions about the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination controversy can be accompanied by a panel debate, with the speakers circulating and talking with the audience over drinks afterwards.

Charles Dana was an American tycoon and philanthropist, and his foundation sponsors the new centre through the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, which promotes public involvement in brain research. Much of the centre's dialogue focuses on the impact of scientific breakthroughs on society, for instance, gene research or, in the future, face transplants.

I left pondering the similarities between museums and universities. Both have the task of preserving a legacy of knowledge and communicating parts of it to experts or interested parties. We analyse, classify, model and try to explain the objects and structures within our area of knowledge, creating specialised terminology and modes of discourse that are hard for outsiders to penetrate. Our institutions are places where people expect to learn something.

Museums, though, have a special task, because they have to be "fun" as well. They are part of the entertainment and tourism industries, competing with films, television, beaches, cathedrals, amusement arcades and shopping. The people behind the Dana Centre are well aware of that. Their choice of events is decided in part by what their target audience of 18 to 45-year-olds thinks of as entertaining. If that means stand-up comedy and popularity polls, then the Dana Centre will have them. A grumpy university professor might find some of this facile, but that's irrelevant: museums that are worthy but empty are useless. Of course, the same is true of universities, but we don't have to latch on to cultural gimmicks, and we often look silly if we try: instead we offer young people cheap bars, freedom from parental control for a few years and a likely middle-class life at the end, which is quite enough.

I pondered, too, the notion of "science" that underlies the Dana Centre and the Science Museum as a whole: a difficult realm of obscure facts and theories, occasionally producing inventions that are either supposedly fascinating in themselves, such as moon rockets, or useful in our daily lives, such as non-stick frying pans. Not much here about the huge connections between science and war - you have to go to the Imperial War Museum for that. For me, there's also the need to think of science not just as a remote thing but as a process, simply the best one we have for making sense of most of the world. That means including the social sciences and humanities, which set the context for many of the debates about science and society that will take place at the Dana Centre.

"How can we communicate science to ordinary people?" asked the MC at the end of the fluoride debate. Suggestions included making it more fun, and finding scientific icons such as the sport and film celebrities everyone is so interested in. What about challenging the assumption that science is a thing that a small elite of very clever people do to the rest of us?

I was struck by the huge number of people needed to present the centre to the public - ironic when science and technology are the most impersonal and non-human things humans have created. But enough of this academic carping.

The Dana Centre is a brave attempt to bring science to life, and to encourage visitors to museums to stop gawping and start thinking. It deserves to be a huge success.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies at the University of Brighton. For more information go to www.danacentre.org.uk .

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