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Science Gallery Bengaluru is not a ‘museum of science'

Shrabonti Bagchi
It’s a place where science and art collide, says founder director Jahnavi PhalkeyOne of the aims of Science Gallery International is to enable people to understand and actively engage in university work and research

Jahnavi Phalkey is a busy woman. The founding director of the Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB) is putting together an exhibition later this year as a preview of what the gallery will entail once it opens its doors to the public in 2021, and, as always, the first steps are the hardest. The exhibition, being organized in collaboration with the US-based Smithsonian Institution, has the theme “water matters”, and Phalkey wants the best minds working in the field in Bengaluru and across the country to present projects.

And it’s not just scientists she’s looking for—her aim is to find water conservation experts, artists, designers and coders who can interpret and make sense of India’s imminent water crises through exciting interdisciplinary projects.

The exhibition is important not just from an organizational point of view, but also because a lot of people are unfamiliar with the concept of a science gallery. The exhibition will be able to display—and not just tell—the gallery’s aims and ethos.

For starters, a science gallery—at least a science gallery envisaged by the Dublin-based Science Gallery International network, of which SGB is a sister institution—is different from a science museum. While a science museum would typically showcase the “what” and “why” of science, a science gallery would focus more on the “how”; the “process of knowledge-making”, as Phalkey puts it. “Most science communication is about how to take something scientific and explain it better, make it easier to understand—which is basically throwing more science at the problem. The science gallery, on the other hand, is more about science; it showcases how science works, and ultimately builds a critical appreciation for it,” explains Phalkey.

One of the stated aims of Science Gallery International is to enable people to understand and actively engage in university work and research. While most establishedscience galleries are located within major universities and are run primarily by them, the SGB has a more independent status. It is coming up in collaboration with three leading educational institutions—the Indian Institute of Science, National Centre for Biological Sciences, and Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology—but the gallery will “not be tied to the ambitions of a single university”, says Phalkey. The 50,000 sq. ft gallery, being designed by Bengaluru-based CnT Architects, will be located on land adjacent to the Indian Veterinary Research Institute on Bengaluru's Bellary Road.

When the “mothership”—the Science Gallery at Trinity College, Dublin—was set up in 2008, it was seen as a space where “science and art collide”. Collaborations between scientists, artists and designers, who submit proposals through “open calls” made by the galleries, are absolutely crucial to its ethos and activities. “Frankly, this is also why my board thought someone like me could do this job,” says Phalkey, who is a historian of science and technology, and is a visiting lecturer at King's College London, where she was tenured senior lecturer, till she took on the directorship of the SGB. The author of Atomic State: Big Science In Twentieth Century India (2013), she is also on the editorial board of the British Journal For The History Of Science.

However, Phalkey does not have a degree in science—and this has sometimes been a challenge, especially in India, where engineers build, scientists do science, and “arts people” (presumably) look for jobs. “That divide itself is artificial,” says Phalkey, who believes there is a need to script science back into culture. “What are scientists if not members of society?”

At the same time, while we do talk of engineering students being taught history and philosophy—which she believes is crucial—we don’t equally emphasize the reverse—humanities students being taught basic science. “Humanities students, and indeed anyone living in the time of climate change, advanced technology, biotechnology, complex medical practices, needs to understand science, but we are not giving them the tools to do so. These are some of the gaps SGB wants to address,” says Phalkey.

The SGB and its sister galleries in Dublin, London, Melbourne and Detroit (there are two more coming up in Venice and Rotterdam) want to go from “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to “STEAM”, which injects “arts” into the mix. Most educationists and academics around the globe now agree this is the right mix. “There is increasingly an acknowledgement of the fact that good research questions can come from anywhere. There can be provocation from an artist, or from a conversation with a philosopher. The original questions in science are going to come from the world around you... from people who engage in different ways with the same issue,” explains Phalkey.

One of the ongoing travelling exhibitions of the gallery network is HUMAN+: The Future Of Our Species, and it helps in understanding what the organization is shooting for. The exhibition draws together a range of installations that explore ideas like a “euthanasia roller-coaster that will enable your suicide to be euphoric and happy”, to how babies can be modified to improve their development. HUMAN+ paints a somewhat ambiguous picture of the future of our species, and asks questions like, “What enhancements will we choose to become better humans?” and “What happens when we live side by side with our robotic companions?”

Once it is operational, the gallery will house three exhibitions a year for 100 days each, and will have permanent spaces like a wet lab, a circuits and electronics lab, a theory lab, a reading room, a black box theatre and a food lab. At any point, it will also host four residents working on projects on site. The SGB will also be the first purpose-built gallery in the network, the others being located in existing spaces within universities.

“The team is designing the space keeping in mind the central motto of the galleries—connect, participate, surprise,” says architect Prem Chandavarkar.