Science Gallery Dublin: Before The Story So Far

The Story So Far is the title of Science Gallery Dublin’s continually-evolving video summary of its evolution to date (latest version viewable here). This essay covers the years before it all began, principally 2006 and 2007, and investigates why and how Science Gallery came to be at Trinity College Dublin. By no means an exhaustive record of key people in the development of Science Gallery, this history is based on interviews with four of the early influencers. Essential reading on Science Gallery’s ‘early days’ includes a 2008 Nature article and a 2009 article in UMACJ, both by Michael John Gorman. A version of this post was originally published as a chapter in Little Country, Big Talk

In his keynote address to the 2016 International Council of Museums conference, Orhan Pamuk, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, called for a change in the role and structure of museums in the 21st century, saying that the world is still operating in an era of epic museums, whereas we should be pursuing an era of smaller museums that tell personal stories.

Pamuk is the founder of the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, awarded European Museum of the Year in 2014. This museum exhibits the ephemera from the fictional lives depicted in his novel of the same name and its focus is firmly on the everyday lived experience. Pamuk has articulated his view of museums in a manifesto[1] that calls for museums that are more like novels than epics, more diverse, economical, experimental, participatory, and even rebellious against hierarchy and power.

We think of novels as ubiquitous now, but it is a recent literary form compared to epics, dramas, and histories, which were mature genres before the first proto-novels. Like many art forms, the novel’s early archetypes were categorised as such only retroactively. If the novel-museum is an emerging genre, yet to be firmly defined and studied, there may already be museums at the vanguard of this change.

Ireland finds itself without an ‘epic’ science centre as of 2017 but Dublin does have an interesting alternative to (or rather, anomaly amongst) science centres. Science Gallery Dublin is smaller and houses no permanent collection. Its stated target audience is 15-25 year-olds, and the changing programme of exhibitions, events and educational programming is built around themes that blend art and science. It is a part of Trinity College Dublin (TCD) but features the work of individual artists and scientists from Ireland and the rest of the world.

Is Science Gallery a novel amongst epics? It is certainly smaller, more experimental and economical. Similar spaces that blend art, science and technology, and focus on deep participation have been emerging more rapidly since the mid-2000s, and further research may determine whether new spaces like Wellcome Collection, V&A East, Kapelica Gallery, MU Eindhoven and others are part of a growing trend towards a post-epic era.

Science Gallery has garnered considerable acclaim from the public, peers, and stakeholders since opening in 2008[2]. Exhibitions have toured to dozens of venues internationally, and more Science Galleries are planned for London, Melbourne Bengaluru, Detroit and Venice – all part of the Global Science Gallery Network.

But what were the conditions, policies, and individuals that gave rise to Science Gallery in 2008? In examining this, I’ll also outline some directions of possible future research based on the participatory, economical, contemporary model for museums and galleries that Pamuk foresees. Others have considered what Science Gallery represents[3] but this article will ask why and how Science Gallery came to exist. Among the innumerable people involved in initiating Science Gallery, four of the most influential were interviewed for this essay: Professor Mike Coey; former Provost of Trinity College Dublin John Hegarty; current Director of Science Gallery Lynn Scarff; and Founding Director Michael John Gorman[4].

Each of them pointed to some or all of the following factors as being key to Science Gallery’s genesis:

  1. A group of university scientists motivated to communicate with the public about contemporary science
  2. An increase in government investment in science and in science communication
  3. A university-wide policy in Trinity College Dublin making public engagement a component of all new building projects
  4. A project leader with a well-defined concept, and the support and freedom to pursue an experimental and unproven model

One environmental factor behind Science Gallery was the low level of interest and trust in science and scientists in Ireland at the time. Though not unique to Ireland, it was, according to Hegarty “[an] issue that had been around for a long time.” In early discussions about Science Gallery, he recalled that there was an awareness of “how poorly science was viewed in this country… with suspicion by many people because of lack of understanding of science, and [a] drop-off in interest in science by the age of 15 [that] was quite spectacular.”

Hegarty remembers many stakeholders – both public and private – openly discussing the need to encourage young people to ‘persist’ with an interest in science past the age of 15, and this was supported by the National Development Plan’s growing focus on science at the time.

In early discussions of the initiative that would become Science Gallery, Hegarty says “the overriding concern was why are young people not staying with science, and why is the public sceptical of science.” This question shaped an early decision about the programmatic content: “The idea of having a permanent exhibition— that didn’t seem very exciting.”

Scarff says that Science Gallery stakeholders were a bigger driver for the establishment of Science Gallery than any evident demand from the general public “because [members of the public] didn’t know what they were missing.”  She said that there was always a sense that “we knew there was an audience out there, but they didn’t necessarily know that they were out there.” However, even though TCD and Science Gallery’s eventual corporate partners were “hungry” for a project like this, they probably held “a more traditional view of what we were going to do.”  Scarff adds, “I think they were surprised that we were successful.”

The goal of attracting more young people into STEM careers and courses “was an important goal in the early days in framing the rationale for Science Gallery” according to Gorman. There were and are many initiatives in Ireland with similar aims but “with SG, we found that the idea of facilitating face-to-face conversations with passionate students primarily in STEM areas (but also with humanities to some extent) was a really valuable mechanism to open people’s eyes to the option of studying science. You’re meeting somebody who chose to study it and is really passionate about it, which is a more human interaction than hitting them over the head with a brochure about ‘please study engineering at TCD’.”

Thinking of Science Gallery as a creative platform and a “new kind of interdisciplinary space” came about later, according to Gorman, and represented a divergence from the early goal of being a “vehicle to get people to consider taking particular courses”. But whether the gallery focused on attracting more young people to STEM careers as a deliverable or not, the focus from the beginning was squarely on 15-25-year-olds.

Belfast had a children’s science centre, W5, since 2001 but there was no equivalent science centre south of the border. Did this increase demand for something like Science Gallery, or was Science Gallery fulfilling the role of a more traditional ‘epic’ science centre, just in a nano-sized venue?  Hegarty says, “The Exploration Station[5] was in train at the time, and was aimed at a different audience, so we were focusing on the 15-25 year olds who were going to be determining their attitudes toward science very quickly and we saw nobody addressing that.”

As the plans were in place for children’s science centre, that space was effectively claimed and this may have liberated or required Science Gallery to construct a distinct identity. Gorman contends that “there was always the ghost of a science centre” and Scarff says that Science Gallery didn’t become the de facto national science centre even when the Exploration Station project evaporated as Science Gallery was already positioned differently: “We were very clear that we were not going to be the national science centre because we knew it was coming down the line.”  Gorman believes, “the fact that [Exploration Station] was out there as a project actually helped us… we had to be clear we were not going to duplicate what they were going to do.”

This necessitated a strong focus on branding, according to Gorman and Scarff, and early work on brand identity, style guidelines, and ‘voice’ were essential to creating a distinct, vibrant identity that stood out from other STEM initiatives, and eventually laid the groundwork for a global brand.

Another reason that Science gallery focussed on the 15+ age group was rooted in its identity as a university initiative. “The university’s business is education,” Hegarty says, “so where the students come from is of vital concern. So obviously the 15-18-year period was absolutely essential to the interests of the university — that was not difficult to argue within [TCD].” Coey also says that his earliest vision of Science Gallery was as a space not aimed at children, but rather young adults, and which dealt with contemporary research. To him, “the obvious reason why this had to be in a university was because that’s where the scientists were”.

The older age group, the focus on temporary exhibitions, and the university connection placed the project at a unique starting point, which was also a unique advantage, according to Scarff. She recalls a sense that they were “following an opportunity” to establish something that would be entrepreneurial and innovative.  Gorman agrees, saying “around the world many science centres don’t have that direct link with research, and don’t have researchers involved, except as part of advisory boards, or at many levels removed.” Echoing the broader move towards two-way engagement in science communication, Gorman saw the direct interaction between scientists and the public as a unique element of Science Gallery’s identity, which “set Science Gallery apart as a space that directly drew people out of research into direct conversation with the public”.

Working directly with university researchers and targeting an age group not normally served by more traditional science centres was never a controversial decision, and this direction played nicely into a new initiative to increase TCD’s engagement with its immediate neighbourhood and the government’s growing support for scientific research and science outreach.

In the mid-2000s there was much evidence of growing enthusiasm for science communication. The government’s public awareness programme was re-organised in 2003 as Discover Science & Engineering. Five DCU science communication graduates began the Alchemist Café in Dublin in 2004. The BA Festival of Science was held in Dublin in 2005, for the first time since 1957, and that occasion brought more discussions and interest into what Science Gallery could be, according to Gorman. Things were moving quickly by 2006, but the march towards a Science Gallery began long before, and two policy developments in particular made for a fertile environment for Science Gallery to emerge.

First, the increases in government research funding from the 1980s and the subsequent establishment of Science Foundation Ireland are cited as important by all of our interviewees. William Harris was appointed the first Director General of SFI in 2001. He had previously worked at the National Science Foundation, where there was a focus on developing research centres (as opposed to individual researchers) and an emphasis on interacting with the community at large. This background influenced the formative years of SFI, according to Hegarty, who says “part of SFI’s policy in funding research centres was a requirement to have an outreach component, without defining what that meant, so it could be anything from having something on the web, to school visits, to a function, or teachers interning for periods.”

Coey was one of the Principal Investigators in a proposal to SFI for a dedicated nanoscience research centre, which would eventually become the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN[6]). Gorman points out that “most of the SFI-funded CSETs (Centres for Science Engineering & Technology) were ‘virtual’ centres, not necessarily building-based but the Trinity scientists including Mike Coey, John Boland, John Pethica and others were convinced that [the proposed nanoscience institute] needed to be a new building.” He credits them with wanting “a new type of outreach facility as part of it,” saying, “I think that gave impetus for Science Gallery.” Hegarty also credits the nanoscientists who were involved in the bid to establish a nanoscience institute, “and principally Mike Coey”, with coming up with the original idea that led to Science Gallery.

Regarding the outreach element of their bid, Mike Coey cites the Koshland Science Museum as influencing his original idea for a space aimed not at children, but at the general public, and featuring changing topics and exhibitions. When SFI eventually funded Coey’s proposal, Science Gallery suddenly leapt from idea to deliverable.  The original plan was to use the whole street façade of the new building on both the first and second floors. The eventual decoupling of the CRANN building from the Trinity Sports Centre, necessitated by the sensitive nanoscience equipment, meant that the plans for the gallery shifted to the CRANN half of the building, which slightly reduced the gallery’s footprint. Coey recalls that he hoped they would be able to use some of the nearby railway arches for Science Gallery, “but the [TCD] buildings office were not willing to relinquish them.”

To Gorman, the “constraint” of having a small space to work with meant that doing something on the epic scale of somewhere like the Exploratorium in San Francisco was “not an option”, but it did provide an opportunity to conceive of the place as a more participatory “meeting place for different ideas”. The prominent outward-facing placement of the gallery at the periphery of the university also inspired the widely-used metaphor of a ‘porous membrane’ between the university and the community, and researchers and the public.

The second important policy development was a new emphasis on community engagement at Trinity College Dublin that required new buildings to have an accessible, public-facing element. The proposed location for CRANN was at the historically neglected east end of the university’s boundary with the city, and a university-wide requirement for new buildings to have a public component set the stage for a physical manifestation of science outreach. Hegarty says:

“There were many factors that came together… Trinity is in the centre of the city — a sensitive part of the landscape, and it was expanding and acquiring all the buildings around the periphery. This was a wasteland, this corner, and there are local neighbours and communities around here who were very sensitive to how Trinity developed because it impacted their lives, their future, and the culture of the area. So one of the things we did soon after I became Provost was to develop a new policy that any street development at ground level would have a public function and would be outward facing. It could be commercial, it could be anything — could be a shop, a cafe, a pub — just not closed in. Trinity was quite closed in before, with blocked up buildings as you can see down the street still. And I had a new officer of the college — a Community Liaison Officer — whose function was to liaise with local communities, so they knew in advance what was happening.”

That policy aimed to improve the university’s relationship with the city – a problem Hegarty concedes many universities experience, but one he believes has been improved in Dublin. On Pearse Street, where Science Gallery is located, the physical differences between 2005 and 2017 are stark. The Naughton Institute’s all-glass frontage including Science Gallery and the TCD Sports Centre have replaced a dilapidated car park. A new Business School will soon incorporate many of the bricked-up Georgian buildings nearby, and many more cafes, shops and street-facing units are present in the area than a decade ago.

If the stage was set around 2005, then the drama was yet to begin. “Once we appointed a director,” Hegarty says, “all the objections came to the fore.” As the project began to come together and the prospect (and funding) of a dedicated building became likely, the enthusiasm for Science Gallery was countered by an emerging disparity of visions about what exactly this new outreach initiative should be. The question of whether the entire project was worthwhile came up at high levels in TCD in the lead up to (and after) Science Gallery’s launch, according to Hegarty. He says that scepticism was expressed “for many years, with the question arising yearly, what is the return on this?”

Once funding was secured, the (sometimes heated) discussions about what exactly Science Gallery would be were complicated by the fact that “very few people understood what we meant by this centre – would it be a museum? A science museum where kids came in, with hands-on stuff? Was it purely intellectual centre with talks, discussions, which required an intellectual engagement from people initially to get involved?” Though in reality many of these questions were answered early on, misunderstandings seemed to abound.

According to Hegarty, the realisation that this initiative would need to be maintained and continually programmed was “the bigger problem” than capital funding. “The crunch came when we made the decision to appoint a director – that required money and commitment. And then the question arose – what is this and why are we spending money on this? And is this what a university should be doing?”

It would seem that Science Gallery had acquired enthusiasts and doubters before being scrutinised academically and financially. Hegarty recalls that “the majority of people who had to engage with it were sceptical –this was seen as a big financial risk in an area that wasn’t central to the university, a university shouldn’t be doing this kind of thing anyway, its focus should be education and research, and so on. Those arguments were all visible. “

At that early stage, Hegarty says the idea was to have “some space where the public could come and view science” and that it was initially planned as “quite an intellectual engagement” based on the notion that most people “never had the opportunity to understand science, or to study it.” In a nutshell, a space where they could “inquire, and ask questions about science”.

Of the Science Gallery’s original mission, Coey says, “I believe [it] was to create awareness of what we know in the scientific community and making it available to the public so they can judge it – I never considered this was a sort of lecturing operation, or even a teaching operation, but it should have been an operation in presentation – allow the people that come to take on board what they can and form their opinions”.  In Coey’s view, Science Gallery does not focus on communicating robust scientific information in the way that he originally hoped. “My idea was that this Science Gallery would be very much an enterprise where scientists were engaged in actually getting across the truth.”  He says that modern techniques were certainly needed to do so, and that he was “very conscious of doing this in a way that was appealing and imaginative and original.” However, the move toward an emphasis on art and science was a direction that he originally opposed and continues to see as a shift away from his original vision, saying “I never imagined that it would turn into basically what is hardly a science gallery at all – essentially, it’s science light.“

Gorman, on the other hand, believes some of the originators of the project were envisioning concepts that were overtly didactic: “I think some of the physicists involved – while they had very developed ideas around the scientific research – were talking about things like ‘we should have Maxwell’s equations on the wall, then the public will learn about electromagnetism’ and so on.”  Gorman’s point also echoes a debate that still arises as to whether those who communicate science (in museums, on TV or in newspapers) should be communicators who are experts in science, or experts in science communication who are not necessarily scientists.  Recalling some of the early conversations, Gorman says “some of the ideas that were floating around about how to engage the public with science were very much in the school of the deficit model: the idea that people need to be filled up with science.” Gorman didn’t share this viewpoint, and he didn’t revere the institutions that were being held up as paragons: “There was one project that was being cited as an example that should be followed, the Marian Koshland Center in Washington DC, which is really a communications vehicle for the National Academy of Sciences in the US.”

The focus on art and science that came to define Science Gallery developed when the founding director was hired.  This direction, which some saw as a departure from the original intent of the project, was by no means universally supported. It had its origins in Gorman’s own interest area, and in an emerging group of similar institutions that were opening around the same time. Many of the scientists were initially “very sceptical” about incorporating the arts, according to Gorman, and “they really wanted Science Gallery to be a place that was just about communicating science to the public, so for the first year or two, I think it was almost touch and go as to whether we would get closed down, but we were very fortunate that we had someone like John Hegarty.”

Hegarty was a professor of Physics at TCD before becoming provost of Trinity College Dublin in 2001. After his post-doctorate at University of Wisconsin-Madison, he was a research scientist at Bell Labs, which, according to Gorman, was “one of the most vibrant hubs of art and technology… so he instinctively saw the value in bringing art and science together, whereas some of the scientists didn’t see it”.

“I was really very strongly keen on this idea of connecting art and science” says Gorman. Along with artist Wiebke Drenckhan he had been organising a monthly salon at the Odessa Club that brought together artists and scientists. With an academic background spanning Oxford, Harvard, MIT and Stanford and bridged art and science, Gorman had also run various art-science projects, such as Save the Robots in association with The Ark[7] in Dublin’s Temple Bar.  When he heard about the Science Gallery, he saw it as an opportunity to further explore the art-science nexus. “I pitched even at the interview that this was an opportunity to do something different, not just something that was a copy of the Marian Koshland Science Museum, but something that would be unique in the world, and the idea that it should bring together science and other disciplines, and science and the arts and that it should be something which would have three core values of connect, participate and surprise, and that these should be ingredients of everything we did.”

The focus on participation as distinct from mechanical interactivity was strengthening in both the museum sector and in science communication in general. Nina Simon’s ‘The Participatory Museum’ would not be published in print until 2010[8], but her blog Museum 2.0 was already becoming a prominent platform for considering audiences as actors in two-way dialogues. She and other thinkers urged institutions to invite visitors to influence programming at museums and galleries, and to feature the work of participating audiences in addition to the work of experts, whether artists or scientists. In the early days of Science Gallery, there was a suspicion and open critique of overly didactic methods that focussed on disseminating knowledge from expert scientist to non-expert audiences. Science Gallery’s Participate, Connect and Surprise core values were analogous to the increasingly popular notion of upstream engagement, whereby audiences could communicate with scientists in a participatory way, potentially influencing their research, methods, ethical decisions or policy.

The passion to communicate science clearly motivated many of the influential scientists in the early days of Science Gallery. Some of them saw communicating with the public as a kind of duty rather than an act that might result in any meaningful feedback or participation from the general public. However, this passion and the different visions about possible directions were not necessarily informed by contemporary theories of science communication, according to Gorman, and this led to conflict. His proposed focus on art and science seemed unproven and risky but Science Gallery would not be entirely alone in following this path. “Around the world,” he says, “there were a number of spaces connecting science and art popping up – you had Le Laboratoire in Paris, Wellcome Collection opening up in London. There was a real sense that we were fellow travellers, and myself, Ken Arnold and David Edwards all published articles in Nature around the same time about the opening of our different projects.”

Like many engagement and outreach initiatives, Gorman says different stakeholders had different motivations for communicating science: the scientists involved

“… really wanted to communicate the value of research and science to the public, but they had certain ideas about the how that were not hugely developed at that time. Trinity wanted to have a shop window to the world. The government and the Department of Jobs and Innovation wanted to recruit more people into science. These were some of the enabling factors, but for me, the great opportunity was to have a space where science could meet art and where we could leverage the conversation across boundaries – which is something people have struggled to create in other parts of the world.”

Gorman and Scarff recall Provost Hegarty as a champion whose support was essential to pursuing their vision and Hegarty himself says, “that was my main role – to defend that space within the university against that scepticism and maintain that base of funding for a sufficient number of years for [Science Gallery] to gain credibility.  So there was a four- or five-year period where some people might have been saying “did you hear about this weird idea going down at the back of college— the Provost wants it, what is it, sounds mad?” Hegarty now admits that he was nervous on the opening night. He wondered whether anyone would show up. His worries were short-lived, saying, “when it opened, it opened with a bang.”

Science Gallery would go on to surpass its stated goal of 50,000 annual visitors with a first-year attendance of over 200,000.  The strong initial attendance was not a guarantee of success, though, and Hegarty says that “a key to its continuing success was to get a few champions within the university – that happened by having a few internal people mount exhibitions, and it then went beyond the nanoscience centre.”  Though Hegarty always supported the idea to develop exhibitions on interdisciplinary themes across college departments, he says that in retrospect, such an approach was probably crucial to Science Gallery’s continued existence, and if the gallery had “stuck with only nanoscience it probably would have failed.” Involving researchers from psychology, chemistry, biology, and other fields “helped overcome the scepticism.” Gorman cites the involvement of accomplished Trinity scientists such as Luke O’Neill and Denis Weaire as essential in combating the sceptics.

With CRANN winning a substantial grant from SFI as well as generous support from private donors like Martin Naughton (for whom the building is named) in a thriving pre-recession economy, funding was not initially a worry, according to Hegarty. Not everyone recalls such a stable early financial footing, however. The SFI capital funding only funded CRANN, and not Science Gallery. Most of the operational funding and money for the fit-out of Science Gallery still had yet to be secured when Gorman was hired as Director. Once the Irish Government supplied a capital grant and the Wellcome Trust came on board the financials were more secure, with Wellcome’s support acting as a “credible endorsement” of the art and science concept, according to Michael John. Still, year-on-year operational funding was lacking, and early pressure for funding certainly influenced the development of a ‘blended’ funding model, which (unusually amongst similar Irish and UK institutions) has a relatively diversified source of income and relies heavily on corporate support and earned revenue.

This entrepreneurial financial strategy was in no small part influenced by the Science Gallery board (and the pre-opening Development Board) both of which were chaired by accomplished entrepreneur Chris Horn. According to Gorman, Horn’s entrepreneurial approach, and early aspirations for “going global” would influence the overall culture and style of operation at Science Gallery for years to come (Horn is now chairperson of the board of Science Gallery International). Having a non-trinity chair of a board, composed of a mix of TCD staff and external members including entrepreneurs, also helped provide “air cover to allow us to experiment and to try out a model which was different, and to have a chance to experiment and to fail,” as Gorman acknowledges. To Hegarty, the risk and experimentation involved in setting up Science Gallery spoke to his conviction about a university’s duty:

“My philosophy about what role the university should play is that the university should not play to the status quo, or current set of accepted ideas and notions and so on. It should be on the edge, always on the edge, and that means challenging. If everybody thinks you’re great and doing the right thing, then you are not doing the right thing. So here was a concept that was beginning to emerge, it was quite different, and people were highly sceptical, and I thought, ‘Well, this is what we should be doing! We should be taking risks. What’s the worst that could happen?’ The worst that could happen would be that it doesn’t work. Who else – what other organisation or institutions in a country can take such risks? I feel strongly about that.

“My contribution to it in a way was to say, ‘Defend that space, where it’s not clear, where it’s not certain – it’s high risk, it may not work, it’s different to what you’re used to, but hey that’s what we should be doing.’ In the future we’ll look back and say that was the beginning of something that will be accepted in 30 or 40 years’ time.”

As of 2017, there are a number of other Science Galleries and Science Gallery initiatives around the world, at various stages of development. Kings College London hosts Science Gallery London which is producing events and ‘pop-up’ exhibitions during the construction of their building. Science Gallery Melbourne is not far behind and Science Galleries in Bangaluru and Venice have been formally announced and will soon be recruiting staff. Science Gallery Dublin may be a model which is now being emulated, but amongst the four influencers interviewed for this chapter there was a feeling that they were a part of something new back in 2006 which had few, if any, models. Hegarty says “there was nowhere else to look – we couldn’t find a model like this.” It is perhaps odd that the Marian Koshland Science Museum comes up as an original inspiration, since its style and method are not very similar to Science Gallery’s. As it evolved, however, Science Gallery was clearly influenced by existing science centres and science communication theory. Scarff says Science Gallery had a “new approach” that may have shared some aspects with interdisciplinary institutions such as Ars Electronica, but was distinct because of the focus on community engagement. But Exploratorium, Palais de Tokyo, various art/science/tech collaborations and festivals, plus emerging “fellow travellers” like the Wellcome Collection all influenced Science Gallery’s approach and style.

Perhaps rather than a model, Science Gallery’s arrival and early years can be seen as a moment in the development toward the smaller, more participative genre of museums that Pamuk is advocating. Hegarty is confident that Science Gallery can be instructive for new, innovative science communication venues, saying “I could see it being replicated… but it worked here because it related to all the local strengths we had, and the factors that were at play… we were looking for a solution to a serious set of problems, and we had a set of circumstances – being in the centre of the city, street facing, and so on, that actually all came together and made this solution make sense.“ Favourable policies, stakeholders that valued science communication, and a focussed concept that was protected by a champion – these all combined for a sufficient period for Gorman to follow through on the concept and deliver something that has won international acclaim. “For me,” Hegarty says “the return for the university is that it created something accepted by the rest of the world as new, different, edgy and worthwhile.”

In the years since Science Gallery opened, university funding has experienced a significant decline in Ireland, and TCD’s financial support of Science Gallery has dropped correspondingly; it now funds 11% of the gallery’s total budget. However, Science Gallery was the sixth most visited free attraction in Ireland in 2015 with over 400,000 attendees. Over 10% of first-year entrants to TCD cited Science Gallery as a factor in their decision to come to the university. Science Gallery exhibitions have toured to 16 other locations worldwide, and the gallery has received over €1.3 million in European research grants.

The longer-term effects on individuals and society at large are more difficult to assess, though efforts to study this have begun. In the museum industry, demonstrating impact can be as complicated as it is important. Science Gallery’s relative youth, plus its rapidly changing programme of exhibitions pose challenges for longitudinal study of impacts. One promising direction for further research is the emerging use of a public health framework to analyse impact[9]. Cultural engagement has been shown to have a positive effect on public health and wellbeing[10], however this analysis has not been widely applied to science engagement, perhaps due to the perception that science museums and science centres provide an educational experience rather than a cultural one. Hegarty is certain that the gallery has already had “an extraordinary effect on public mentality.” But is Science Gallery the originator of changes in the way society thinks about science, museums, and public engagement, or is it a manifestation of a wider change in public engagement and it just happened to be in the right place at the right time to combine a number of ambitious and experimental approaches into one coherent package?

The answer is likely both, rather than either/or.  Gorman frames the gallery’s own evolution as analogous to an industry-wide shift towards participative, interdisciplinary engagement. Gorman believes that the gallery has had a meaningful impact on the general public by engaging them with contemporary research, but also that the gallery has had an opportunity to offer emerging scientists a transformative experience:

“You could trace an evolution from the goal of ‘we need more scientists, we need more engineers’ (which was the early rhetoric in trying to frame Science Gallery) into ‘we need a new kind of scientist, we need a new kind of engineer’.”

Likewise, Science Gallery’s own evolution seems to exemplify a maturing of goals from trying to engage young people ‘with’ science towards trying to foster connections between experts and non-experts, and facilitating dialogues across disciplines and traditional power hierarchies.  Originating from an idea that was largely oriented towards dissemination and communication of science, the gallery has evolved to encompass a wider mission “to ignite creativity and discovery where science and art collide”, which increasingly focusses on individual agency, cultural relevance, and social impact. More work lies ahead to assess its success in achieving these ambitious goals and to analyse how Science Gallery’s evolution may be indicative of Pamuk’s proposed shift towards smaller institutions that cultivate empowering, personal interactions. Research will need also to consider whether and how the motivations, methods and goals of the “fellow traveller” institutions have evolved. If we are entering an era of smaller-scale museums and galleries, is this a disruptive revolution, or a gradual pedagogy shift? Research on this new generation of museums may involve interdisciplinary approaches that encompass cultural studies and public health in addition to science communication.

Nearly ten years on from Science Gallery’s opening, Hegarty believes that Science Gallery has won over most of its detractors, recalling “one piece of feedback I did get a year and a half ago – a member of the college came over and said ‘By the way, that Science Gallery thing – that was a good idea after all’.”



[1] A Modest Manifesto for Museums


[3] See, for example, A. Bandelli and W. van der Zeijden, W., 2015. Studiolab: what has been learned. Dublin: Science Gallery.

[4] Interviews conducted by the author of this chapter between July and October 2016

[5] See discussion in earlier chapter, The rocky road of science communication

[6] An acronym that gives the Irish (Gaelic) word for ‘tree’.

[7] A children’s arts and performance centre founded in 1995

[8] See

[9] M. O’Neill. 2010. Cultural Attendance and Public Mental Health – From Research to Practice, Journal of Public Mental Health, vol. 10, no. 4; posted at.

[10] BB Konlaan et al., 2000. Visiting the cinema, concerts, museums or art exhibitions as determinant of survival: a Swedish fourteen-year cohort follow-up, Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, vol. 28: 174-178



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