I’ve spent the past 2 days last week talking to people in the Science Museum in London. I was talking to people about a recent space mission in an area which whose sole purpose is to show people what is happening in science now. Not just something from the last 12 months, but really now. Haley and I stood by a 1:4 scale model of the Herschel Space Observatory which was launched into space on 18 May.
I was really surprised by the numbers of people in the Science Museum. It was amazing. I remember going to the Science Museum when I was a child and haven’t been there for probably 15 years. The last time I can remember going there was nearly 18 years ago, on my little sister’s first birthday. She took her first steps in that very museum but my dad and I were far more interested in the remains of Major General Henry Babbage’s Analytical Engine (he was the youngest son of the famous Charles Babbage, who designed the world’s first, modern – albeit mechanical – computer).
Like today, the Science Museum of my childhood, had floors stacked with all the sorts of things I wanted to see; Stevenson’s Rocket, a Foucault pendulum, a Harrier Jet suspended from the ceiling, improbably complex geometric shapes and a lifesize model of the Eagle moon lander. All of those things were stil there when I looked today, but there are 3 aspects present today which I don’t remember. The first is interactive exhibits, every gallery has at least one thing which is interactive. The second is that general admission is free (although if we had wanted to see Wallace and Gromit, we would have had to part with 9 quid each). The third, which definitely was not present at my last visit, is thousands upon thousands of visitors. I believe the 3rd is entirely down to the previous 2 items, although Wallace and Gromit are always big crowd pleasers.
I was so impressed that families with young children were there. Admittedly it is half term this week but the majority of adults and children I spoke to were genuinely having an enjoyable day. Unlike many festivals I’ve been to, when I told people about Herschel, infrared astronomy and space, they were excited too; they wanted to find out more.
These people were a self selected audience, so you could argue that they are mostly likely to be interested in talking to someone about science. In a museum which is filled with models of spacecraft, it is hard to make ‘another model’ stand out as different. Of course it is different because ‘I’ am involved with it (although semi-tangentially), but that isn’t enough for people who don’t know me.
The thing which made Herschel stand out was we told people that it had only recently been launched. I really didn’t think it would make much of a difference but it did. What really surprised me was how genuinely interested people were.
If a model of a mostly British spacecraft is enough to turn heads then there might be hope for reviving the British Space industry. It certainly has worked a charm for engaging with the public.