‘Whether you’re a scientist or an artist you have to make strenuous efforts not to get sucked into a bubble’: Science Gallery London’s Founding Director, Daniel Glaser, on the gallery’s driving mission to encourage cross cultural engagement.
In September of this year London welcomed an exciting new addition to its cultural scene - Science Gallery London - opened by King’s College London at its central London Bridge location. It promises to be a place ‘where science and art collide’ designed with young adults in mind; a space where visitors can consider the most urgent scientific challenges we face, through the lens of art and culture.
Just before its opening I popped along to check out ‘Hooked’ its inaugural exhibition, exploring the theme of addiction, and in this episode of the Research Comms podcast I chat to some of the people who have helped to bring the gallery’s mission to life.
Here are some snippets from my conversations from the day. For the full interview take a listen to the podcast episode.
Q: London is full of science museums, galleries and other cultural institutions. What will differentiate Science Gallery London from those that already exist?
Daniel Glaser (Founding Director): I think the things that distinguish us are, first of all, our commitment to our audience, so we're focused on 15 to 25 year olds and despite London's cultural riches I do think - and there's evidence from research to show this - that 15 to 25 year olds are underserved by current offers within science engagement and within culture.
They're too old for the kind of whiz-bang “Hey Wow!” stuff that science might offer for younger visitors and they're turned off by that approach, as they should be, at fifteen they're differentiating themselves from their childhood selves, and yet they're not necessarily ready for a panel discussion and a glass of wine afterwards. And so actually they fall between the conventional stools of engagement and at Science Gallery London we are interested in 15 to 25 year olds as audiences but also as participants, so all of our work involves speaking to young people from Southwark and Lambeth, from within King’s and beyond in shaping the seasons that we do. So, we spoke to them even before we'd hire a curator for them to tell us what they think addiction should all be about.
Angela (one of the gallery’s ‘Young Leaders’ who are employed by SGL to help create experiences that are relevant to the gallery’s target audience of 15 - 25 year olds):
I think we’re already doing something different because we’re bringing together two seemingly polarising industries into one but actually they're not polarising at all because they're reflecting one and the same thing, which is what it means to be human. So, ultimately that in itself gives us enough meat to chew on.
Aside from that I think we have a huge opportunity now to really create a lifelong impact. It's about creating a space whereby the next generation and the generation after that comes in and feels ‘Yeah this is for me’ you know? Not because ‘I want to be a scientist’ or because ‘I want to be an artist or be involved in arts and culture in any way’ but actually it's just a reflection of ‘where I am right now as a human being’ so that for me is the biggest opportunity right now.
Laura (another Young Leader): It's really exciting because all the way through the process, as soon as we got involved they’ve been very keen on diversity, inclusion, access and it didn't feel forced in any way, it didn't feel like they were ticking boxes. It just felt like an amazing thing to be a part of, and also because it's so interdisciplinary, and that's the buzzword at the moment, I think that will also draw in people who are fed up with rigid categories in their culture.
Q: How is the gallery involving young people when it comes to designing events and exhibitions?
Laura: I think for this exhibit specifically, they went into it thinking “okay we're gonna be looking at alcohol, heroin and things like that” but then they went out into their community into Southwark and Lambeth, they spoke to young people and young people were like, “no I'm addicted to my phone”, and that really led to a lot of the things that are in the gallery right now, so they do actively listen to what's going on around them, and also they don't patronise; they don't say “all young people like graffiti or text speak”, they don't patronise how young people act and that's really nice.
Q: Why is it so important that Science Gallery London is exploring issues like addiction through the lens of both science and art?
Daniel Glaser: If you're interested in addiction you can't confine your stories to scientific; you need culture, you need art, and you need young people's voices and that's why it's such a great choice of topic for science gallery to open with because it's not something that you can hope to address from just one perspective at a time.
Whether you're a scientist or an artist you have to, in the modern world, make strenuous efforts not to get sucked in to a bubble.
And we talk about the social media bubble but the cultural bubble is just as important, and having a space like Science Gallery with its cafe, with its shop, with its galleries, with its courtyard gives us space where people from various different ‘tribes’ can speak to people from other ‘tribes’ and bringing the barriers down for interaction is really at the heart of what we're trying to do here
Laura: For me, one of the most exciting things that visitors will be able to take away from the gallery, as well as the discovery thing, which is really important, it's finding out that science and art aren't mutually exclusive; that science isn't just some rigid stuffy discipline and art doesn't have to be some exclusive elitist pursuit. Together you can create something really cool, like we’re doing here.
Q: We’ve spoken about how you hope visitors will benefit from their interaction with the gallery and its exhibits but what about the scientists who are involved?
DG: As you know, to do research these days, to do science, you've got to engage the public. You can't start a research grant in this country and UK without a plan for how you're going to engage people who are outside the lab with what you do. For King's College, Science Gallery London provides a world-leading platform for researchers to do public engagement, so we are being written into dozens of research grants every year and we are engaging with hundreds of scientists to help them boost their engagement work. And that brings in money to us because you have to write engagement into your budgets but it also allows researchers to improve their work by doing engagement in an integral way and for me that's the hope for Science Gallery; the scientists should be making better science, the researchers should be doing better research because they're speaking to people.
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Peter Barker is the Director of Orinoco Communications, which he started in 2016, having spent over ten years working in broadcast television as a documentary producer/director.
He specialises in the digital communication of research in science, the social sciences, humanities and arts.