My Singapore Science Centre visit

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HITS ( pics 1 – 16 )  |  MISSES ( pics 17 – 30)

I visited the Science Centre last Sunday (30 Sept 2012) to do some field research for my thesis on museums and technology and for my school project as well. For the latter, I am creating an interactive science exhibit to educate audiences on how rapidly global warming is taking place. I have already read some books on museum theory, history and museology and am familiar with the academic debates surrounding how and what museums should or should not be. I have also done a fair bit of research into the global warming issue, including reviewing climate data, documentaries and data visualisations on climate change. So I think it would be fair to say that I went as an informed visitor and am qualified to give some valid criticism on what I saw.

In the end, I was quite amazed at the breadth and depth of topics that the Science Centre covered, anything from genomics, climate change, physics, geology, biology, robotics, diseases, astronomy and so on and so forth. I did not manage to visit the i-Max Omni Theatre but I can imagine the awesomeness of the experience watching it in such an immersive space, with a screen that almost fills up your field of vision. I was impressed by the amount of knowledge being presented, and the sheer size of the Science Centre. You definitely will not be able to cover everything in one day. Thus you can visit it several times and learn something new each time. The exhibits are technically very sophisticated and good to look at. There are play areas for children, thus catering to families as well as serious visitors. There are plenty of cafes and rest areas, thus making the museum visit a comfortable one.

However, I noticed that there were very few visitors when I visited. Sure, I saw a school tour group or two and some families with rowdy young kids who were running around everywhere screaming with excitement, who were mostly concentrated around the outdoor fountain and water play area. There was a small smattering of curious tourists. But on the whole, there was just a lot of empty silent space in the Science Centre.

Based on my personal observation, there were a lot of cool and interesting exhibits, although some of the exhibits were rather technically sophisticated and not that intuitive to use. There was also a lot of data, charts and numbers everywhere. While there is nothing wrong with presenting information as numbers, cold hard data does not help make an interesting museum experience. Data can be gleaned from books. Museum visitors expect exciting, engaging exhibits, and an interactive learning experience that cannot be found elsewhere.

A possible solution  to this would be for the Science Centre to have on-site curators. You cannot just let the audience look at data and charts. The social experience of the Science Centre could be improved by having real human beings around each exhibit area to help guide visitors, advice them on how to use the exhibits and also be trained to be able to answer visitors’ questions about the exhibits. For example, the curators could help guide visitors to use some of the more technically sophisticated exhibits. The human touch in explaining numbers and charts will also make learning more memorable.

I also noticed that there were no other activities other than looking at the exhibits. This was very puzzling to me because a quick glance at the Science Centre website shows a listing of many events, festivals and programmes. Perhaps it was the school semester and it would have been busier during the school holidays, but a Science Centre will not create enough buzz if there are no events going on at any one point of time. The robotics learning lab was closed. During my three hours that afternoon, I did not come across any shows or performances and there was a conspicuous absence of museum staff. There were no staff to be seen beyond the ticketing counter. Visitors were pretty much left to their own devices once they proceeded beyond the entrance gates.

Again, the solution is to have museum staff manning some of the exhibits to help put on shows at regular intervals. There should be museum staff seen at the community-based locations such as the learning labs. There should also be museum staff placed at strategic spots to help usher people who are lost or do not know where to go. The museum staff must be trained to perform their jobs well and have a friendly attitude to create a pleasant social environment for the visitor.

One last gripe I have is that at least 10% of the exhibits I saw were not working properly or at all, especially for the more electronically sophisticated exhibits. Whatever the reason is, it reflects poor professionalism on the museum’s part. I was rather disappointed that some of  the exhibits were not working, especially those with really interesting features such as a 3D video mapping projection and group play interaction.

To sum it up, the physical infrastructure of the Science Centre is impressive, but the human touch is rather lacking.

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