For the last year and a half, the Centre for Life has been developing a new exhibition which allows visitors to get a taste of being a scientist. John Hill talks to special projects manager Andy Lloyd about how Curiosity came to life.
HERE’S an interesting thought: What is that we actually want from an exhibition?
We’ve all been to opulent venues, lacquered with screens, models and boards stuffed with information. Many times we’ve stumbled out inspired and informed, feeling the warm glow of learning something exciting and new. But could a space like this do more than merely show us the wonders of the world?
For the last year and a half, Newcastle’s Centre for Life has been working on an exhibition called Curiosity. Its aim is to enable visitors to explore what it is to be a scientist. That means that every one of the exhibits on show will encourage users to discover new things by experimenting, whether that’s on their own or with a group.
“It’s about recognising that playing is an important part of how you understand the world,” says Andy Lloyd, special projects manager at the Centre for Life. “Even if you’re a theoretical physicist, it’s actually the same approach intellectually. The Curiosity exhibits are intended to give everybody permission to play.”
When Curiosity opens on May 25, there will be a range of exhibits designed to spark the imagination and get the creative juices flowing. There’s Marble Run, a larger-scale version of a popular children’s game of old which challenges players to construct channels for marbles to run down. And there’s Big Machine, a collection of cogs, levers, pulleys and other mechanisms which can be put together in a variety of ways. Music Box is made up of three tables, and players can make their own melody and rhythm by putting various objects on these surfaces. React-able is a digital musical instrument that you can operate by putting blocks on to a multi-touch screen, allowing you to create sweet music with no previous knowledge or training.
It’s all part of Life’s ongoing evolution from a centre designed to explain the wonders of genetics to a vibrant place that sheds light on the wider world of modern-day science.
“When Life opened, its focus was on genetics and activity that was very close to the research taking place in the labs,” says Lloyd. “Since then, the second generation of exhibits has broadened that out to human evolution, anthropology and other snippets of contemporary science, rather than focusing purely on biological sciences.
“However, what we didn’t really have was anything in the permanent exhibition that looked at general scientific method and thinking, and what it is that makes you a scientist.”
In developing such an exhibition, Life looked at approaches that had been taken across the world. In particular, Curiosity was inspired by a study carried out by the Exploratorium in San Francisco in 2005. The study involved subtly altering the American centre’s exhibits over a period of two to three years, to get an idea of how visitors engaged with them differently.
“The people there knew they had some exhibits on their floor that were popular, but they also noticed that some seemed to hold people’s attention for longer than others while some exhibits seemed to engross people more deeply. What they wanted to do was to try to understand better what characteristics made that happen.”
According to Lloyd, this study taught the Centre for Life that visitors responded more to activities that were open-ended, rather than leading to one particular answer. It was also important to interact with a group, either collaboratively or competitively. Furthermore, a good exhibition was something that could be used in a variety of ways.
“We wanted to develop an exhibition where the factual information you learn as a result of being there was less important than the activities you do when you’re there.
“In doing so, you end up with an exhibition that’s not really like a teaching exercise or an encyclopaedia, but actually more like a gym. It’s somewhere you come to exercise your scientific muscles, but there’s benefit from coming back and doing it again and again.”