Why is the Science Gallery London necessary?
There are a number of different narratives. King's College London (where we are based) has not historically been a leader in building engagement. Under Deborah Bull, who is the Director of Cultural Partnerships, King's is realising that doing high profile, high quality engagement has benefits. So Science Gallery London sits on the boundary of the University and the City and we want it to be a space controlled by audiences, who should feel ownership of it. We also want it to be a space where science and art collide.
Is this responding to a gap in the overall landscape of London or did you want to add to whatever is already going on?
I'd say there were a couple of narratives. So from the perspective of London, and you could probably say the UK, there is a deficiency in provision for science engagement and even more so for arts and science engagement, especially for 15 – 25 year olds. They are all served by current venues but there are no venues dedicated to them. It's an audience that, if you don't start at this age, then you never reach it. We also think there is room for a dedicated experimental space for art and science that is connected to research.
How long has it been since the launch and when will the building be open?
I'm glad you put the question like that. We put out a press release announcing £7million of the £12million needed. We have a holding web page and a Twitter feed, but one of the key points we are living by is that Science Gallery London is already in business. Our model for that came from Tate Modern and the Roundhouse, both of which did extensive programmes before the building opened. If you're doing stuff which is supposed to be heavily influenced by the audience, it's actually harder to do that once your shiny new building is opened. This can be a barrier to participation for many groups. So we will be running programmes for two years or so before the building opens - which will be in 2016.
Where will the building be located?
The site is one of the most exciting things about the project. We're in a bit of London called London Bridge that is rapidly developing. In community terms it has not been doing well recently, largely because it was dominated by the docks. That industry moved eastwards when new container docks opened at Tilbury in the 1970s and 1980s. The traditional industries in Southwark and Lambeth suffered and that caused deprivation. Now it's going through something of a transformation and London Bridge is the centre of it. We are directly across from a building called The Shard, which is the tallest building in Western Europe and part of an enormous redevelopment. This includes London Bridge Station and a huge amount of commercial and office space. It is an area of heavy foot-fall, on the one side it's between Bermondsey Street which leads up to an area where a lot of creative industries are located and St Thomas Street, and the other way is up to Borough Market which is one of the biggest visitor attractions in London and the road from London Bridge Station to Guys Hospital - one of the major London hospitals, this is why there is so much foot traffic. The site is on a corner currently occupied by McDonalds – the first one on a health campus which was originally put in for the welfare of the staff. The 20 year lease expired in 2012 so King's perceived the opportunity for a major public-facing venue on that site. It will be two floors of galleries, a shop, a café, a 150 seat black box theatre with retractable seating and a Georgian courtyard about the size of the one at the Royal Academy, which is currently unrestored. The courtyard will be part of the curated space of the Science Gallery London.
How long is it since you launched the Twitter feed and other preliminary activity?
Are you fundraising for the building now and crafting programmes? Also what programmes are you running now?
Yes, as Director my job is to have, shape, and hold the vision for Science Gallery London overall - if we don't get the money we can't build it. King's are backing it, but we have a significant amount of additional investment to raise. I'm focussing on that in collaboration with King's College Development Team who are hugely experienced in raising funds. Then also to deliver a programme up to opening and beyond, we have to think in advance because two years in venue terms is not that far ahead. At the moment I have a team of one, so I need to reach the point over the next two years when I have a full complement of staff and a full programme of exhibitions and activities. Then we hope to have a glorious opening that builds on the established and participative relationships we have made with all the communities that surround the gallery or want to engage with it.
What kind of programmes will you offer?
The curatorial model for Science Gallery London was developed in Dublin where there is a Science Gallery that has been open for five years or so. Science Gallery Dublin is building an international network model of Science Galleries with conversations already taking place with New York, Bangalore, Melbourne and others. It's a peer network, not a hub and spoke model, so we share IP and structures. So we have taken the programming model from Dublin. There is no permanent collection and the programme will be anchored around simple public-facing themes and concepts. So when we open we may have a theme called ADDICTIVE that will look at all kinds of addiction, or SPARE PARTS which could be about transplants and prosthetics. Once a theme has been chosen we will have an open call for content from the public, young people, artists, established partners and other creative practitioners. These ideas will then go through a sort of funnel selection process and form a programme which will be about three months in duration. The intention is that the programmes are multi-disciplinary, multi-art form and supported by discussions, debates, scientific experiments, science communication activity, visualisations, happenings, street fairs, anything you like.
Under whose Governance?
King's College London; we are responsible to them to deliver on the promises of the grant and the programme is delivered through their institutional governance structures.
Who are you answerable to?
Deborah Bull, and she reports in to the Principal's Central Team of King's College London. We are forming an Advisory Group to help us navigate our journey. There will also be a Leonardo Group which will include thinkers from the Arts, Sciences, Design, young people and others - all who will assist us in shaping the programme.
You are taking an interdisciplinary and thematic approach, so do you have milestones along the way?
There is one other top level goal which I should mention. It is about innovation. It's an interesting word that I haven't yet met a good explanation of, though people seem to know it when they see it. There is an argument that says research benefits from engagement. Yet tech start-ups and bio-medical start-ups often happen in a vacuum or within an introverted group of researchers and tech funders. Of course they do market research with potential users, but it isn't usually grounded in an engagement process. So one of the things Science Gallery London can do is to be a hub where bio-med innovation (especially as we are on a hospital campus) can engage with particularly young people as part of a bio-medical start-up. We will not be running an incubator process but we will open ourselves up to those who are. By engaging on the audience's terms we will increase the quality, reach and success of bio-medical start-ups based around what is coming out of King's College for example.
The milestones then are:
- The fundraising target of £12million
- Getting the building open
- 250,000 participants per year, 40% of whom should be in the 15-25 year age group.
The larger key values for participation are: Connect, Participate and Surprise.
- Connect means connect with young people in ways and through ways which are meaningful to them and to encourage them to connect with each other around the themes
- Participation means participating rather than consuming
- Surprise speaks for itself.
The measures for participation will be built in an interesting way. King's College has a reputation in measures for young people's science engagement and participation, so we are building a collaborative evaluation system with the Department of Education & Professional Studies in King's College. We are looking for funds to put PhD students into the Science Gallery London from the off so that they can be part of the process from the start. The idea is that if you have embedded and peer-reviewed research as part of what you are doing then your key performance indicators and funders' reports drop out of that, and the narrative of what you are doing is grounded in academically valid research.
What made King's take action on the Science Gallery?
The lapsing lease and the opportunity it presented, the zeitgeist within higher education institutions made it clear that it was an opportunity not to be missed. Then there was the right relationship between the site and the thinking within the International Science Gallery Network. There is also an interest in capitalising on intellectual property and building entrepreneurship skills - all this has led to a momentum behind the opportunity. The way Guy's and Thomas' Hospitals are involved is that they are part of King's Health Partners, and the campus is owned by King's Health College.
Why is this opportunity exciting for you personally?
I seem to do things in seven year blocks at a time – I was seven years as a PhD; I was seven years at the Wellcome Trust where I was running the external public engagement in Science and Arts projects, so it was timely. It is a new challenge for me and also a great opportunity. I have two slogans: 'Doing science in a non-science space', which I have been doing for 10 years and 'Being part of conversations that are owned and controlled by the audience'. The scale of our ambition and quality of what we will do with the commitment from King's College, who are putting up nearly £1million in running costs per year, is very exciting. There is also a massive audience and we will all feed off that energy.
I'm guessing that the debating element is important to you as you have been doing that since Café Scientifique?
Absolutely, in the classic triad that comes from activism – disseminate, consult and create, we want to move the science communication model on. The classic science communication model was that we are 'the scientists on high' telling you about how it's done. Dialogue was the next step – you set up questions for people to feed into. This takes it further into creation - the audience will be generating the stories. There will be expert participation with world-leading scientists and artists but the story is being told by the 15 – 25 year olds in Southwark and Lambeth.
Scientists are not known for wanting participation from the public?
There is quite good research that shows the following: you measure how much the public trust science and scientists, then you ask scientists to estimate the extent of this trust. Scientists systematically underestimate how much the public are interested or understand or trust. So when you get good engagement, scientists are always pleasantly surprised at how interested and engaged people are. What you get is a great deal of energy liberated in the process - that is the process of the public engaging in what the scientists do. So whilst they (the scientists) have not been happy to turn over the story of what they do to non-scientists, when it happens it's exciting for everybody. Everybody leaves with a renewed vigour for the engagement process.
Let us hope that the arts can do more of that as they are also perceived to be aloof?
The crisis of lack of trust in science is different from the disengagement with the arts that has come about. The opportunity for artists to engage with non-artists on an equal footing in genuinely engaging terms that lead to world-leading art is as exciting as the scientific version of the same.
Is there a question you would have liked me to ask that I have not asked?
No, but I would say the role of engagement in innovation has been underplayed and underestimated. Science Gallery London wants to be seen as speaking to this. We want to democratise the understanding of engagement as it relates to innovation.