Fascinating, fun and, yes, that's science

24th February 2006 at 00:00
A new pound;1 million gallery takes the stuffy out of science with its whizz, bangs and hands-on shows, Deedee Cuddihy reports

Forget about the facts; concentrate on asking questions. That's the philosophy behind the new pound;1 million Connect science and technology gallery.

Opened just last week, with the help of National Museums of Scotland funds and a gaggle of sponsors, the gallery at the Royal Museum offers a wealth of interactive, visually-stunning and uniquedisplays The manager of the project, Lyndsey Clarke, says visitors shouldn't look on a trip to the museum's latest attraction as "learning about science".

She insists: "We want people to come along to try things out and have a fun experience. We hope they'll look at the objects on display and wonder: 'How does that work?' and 'Why does that happen?'."

The new gallery, on the ground floor of the Chambers Street museum, has been designed as a "route into science and technology", especially for families and schools.

"There was a time when science wasn't such a specialised field; it was something that everybody was interested in. With that in mind, we want to encourage visitors to the Connect gallery to forget about facts and concentrate, instead, on asking questions," says Ms Clarke.

She believes the gallery's mix of carefully chosen objects and 25 interactive displays will prove irresistible, even to those people who think they don't like, or are afraid of, science and technology.

The exhibition space has been divided into five main subject areas covering transport (Move It!), artificial intelligence (Robots), cloning (Me2), space travel (Blast Off!) and energy (Power Up). Each subject area is designed around a number of significant museum objects, complemented by a range of specially designed interactives.

Key objects in the Move It! area include the Weir W-2 autogyro, designed and built in Scotland in 1934. These small helicopter-like aircraft were designed to be used like cars and work on a similar principle to sycamore seed pods.

Once featured in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, autogyros are still being developed and, according to Move It!, may yet become a form of everyday transport in the future.

As well as the autogyro, Move It! features one of the world's oldest surviving steam locomotives and what, for some, will prove to be the new gallery's greatest attraction: Jackie Stewart's Formula One racing car. The car is the focus for an interactive called Design for Speed, which allows visitors to design a racing car and take it for a virtual test drive.

Move It!, along with the Me2 and Power Up areas, also tackles what Ms Clarke refers to as "issue-based stuff".

In a section entitled How Green Do You Travel?, visitors are invited to take part in an activity that shows how "the way we use transport in our everyday lives affects the environment".

Me2 explores the fascinating and often controversial subject of cloning, with Dolly the Sheep as the centrepiece of the area. Dolly is now so famous that she has joined the ranks of iconic museum objects, like the Mona Lisa, which have institutions around the world queuing up to borrow them. Dolly has only recently returned from a trip to Hungary and, says Ms Clarke, is at last being exhibited in context.

Me2 invites visitors to discover how unique we are; what a clone is; how GM crops are designed and the pros and cons of human embryo research.

The attractions of such objects as the Black Knight rocket (exhibited upright and stretching past two floors of the building), Freddy the Robot and a Gemini space capsule are immediately obvious.

Ms Clarke reveals that one of her favourite Connect gallery pieces is the mini wind turbine in the Power Up area. Produced commercially in 2004 by an Edinburgh-based company, the mini turbine generates electricity from wind for your own home. Schools in Scotland have also begun generating energy using wind turbines and solar panels. Ms Clarke says: "I like the fact that, through this new visitor attraction, the museum is getting people to think about how they can have a positive impact on the environment."

A computer interactive in the Power Up section lets visitors become the Energy Minister of a fictitious country, challenged with the job of deciding how to meet energy needs on a limited budget. Will you go for nuclear, fossil fuels, renewables, or a mixture of all three? Other interactives in the gallery offer the opportunity to design a robot, fire up a mini rocket, step into a replica space suit and lift your own body weight.

Teachers planning a trip to the new gallery can log on to the museum's Connect website. This includes teachers' notes (downloadable), learning outcomes and curricular links. Schools are strongly advised to book by telephone in advance.

A free evening introduction to the Connect gallery will be held on March 7.

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