The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of our society in many ways. Here, two mediators – science communicators – from Science Gallery Dublin will share with us how the museum has adapted.
By Ian Martin & Fiona McLoone, Science Gallery Dublin
For those of you who have never heard of Science Gallery, we are an art-science gallery space that was founded on the historic grounds of Trinity College Dublin in 2008. Our mission is to create cultural and educational experiences for young people through the intersection of art and science; a cutting-edge approach that led to the foundation of the Science Gallery Network, which is composed of eight Science Gallery nodes across four continents.
Science Gallery Dublin’s (SGD) latest exhibition, “INVISIBLE”, which explores the role of science, art and philosophy in interpreting the unknown, was launched on March 12th, the same day that lockdown began in Ireland. The pandemic was a shock to our systems, and as the gallery entered a state of flux we resolved to embrace this period of experimentation as an opportunity to upskill and innovate.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a raft of challenges for science museums. The digital realm and the physical gallery seemed to be worlds apart, but maybe assuming that a zero-sum game exists between ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ exhibitions in the first place is where we might have been going wrong: this is the moment for science museums to break new ground.
Initially, SGD adopted a reactive approach to dealing with the consequences of the pandemic and the sudden shutdown of the gallery space. The overarching message we wanted to share with our audience was that science communication can happen anywhere. Rather than merely trying to replicate the physical gallery in the virtual world, we asked ourselves how best we could serve our community through our core values of connection, participation, and surprise.
At the start, we pivoted our existing programming – the physical exhibition, book club, and various in-person events – to online platforms such as Instagram, Youtube, and Zoom. We kept careful note of what worked, and welcomed failure as a learning experience in order to craft a hybridised SGD experience that could be enjoyed at home, as well as in the physical space when restrictions were lifted. This responsive outlook allowed us to quickly prototype and accelerate experimental programming. It also transformed our team dynamic; we now work as project teams rather than departments, due to the increasingly blurred-lines between our exhibition and events programmes. Content created and led by mediators came to the fore, from the Eight Easy Pieces mini lecture series, to personal pieces on favourite exhibits, to video crafting and tinkering sessions.
A highlight was programming our first cross-network event with Science Gallery Atlanta and Science Gallery Detroit: the three-hour online experience, “Science of Grief.” We also created a new strand of programming focused on incubating new art-science projects, incentivised by the chilling effect of our national lockdown on the opportunities and funding available for artists based in Ireland. The “Rapid Residencies” grant programme was recently launched to facilitate collaboration between artists and researchers.
The benefits of being part of a network of galleries can’t be overstated – the global Science Gallery Network has allowed us to cross-pollinate various ideas and mirror programming formats that have succeeded in other locations. For example, Science Gallery Bengaluru delivered its first digital pop-up exhibition, entitled “Phytopia“, which explored the hidden world of plants. Interactive tours led by mediators, in which audience members from around the world were facilitated in discussing Phytopia’s themes and topics in small groups, proved hugely successful. The personal human connection that such live synchronous delivery has the ability to reclaim was part of what made this online experience so effective – the tours resonated so much with us that SGD is now adopting a similar approach in the hybrid delivery of future exhibitions.
What does the future look like?
This type of programming is not only a response to the current circumstances, but also a vivid reminder that Science Gallery is so much more than its exhibitions and on-site interactions. This is particularly relevant if social distancing measures are to remain in place, since allowing visitors into the gallery may pose significant challenges. Finding ways to highlight science museums as spaces of learning and as places for informative science entertainment online is vital. Embracing this ‘digital shift’ could create revolutionary sharing potential between institutions and virtual visitors. We find ourselves operating in a transformed landscape, and now more than ever, the creativity and ingenuity at the core of future-facing science museums will be essential for communicating science in a post-pandemic world.