Sabtu, 24 Agustus 2013

India Needs More Science Museums: Reflections on a Recent Visit to Hong Kong Science Museum

On a day made grey by the retreating presence of Typhoon Utor, we recently headed to the Hong Kong Science Museum (HKSM). En route, we crossed the majestic sight of Victoria Harbour, and the crowded streets of Tsim Sha Tsui. With its glittering shops and bustling commerce, a science museum seemed somewhat incongruous in Hong Kong, and we were therefore curious to see what happened there.

As we entered the museum, we realized that it is a popular place. There was a loud buzz of young voices and kids milling everywhere. Any doubts we might have had about the relevance of museums in the internet era were dispelled as we saw the excitement there. It wasn’t much different from what I recall from visiting Bengaluru’s own Visveswaraya Museum as a young student many many years ago.

Practical and Contemporary

HKSM is an intriguing mix of high science and very practical stuff. Reflecting Chinese pragmatism, many of the exhibits are closely related to contemporary life. These give a powerful message of how science and technology are intertwined with our daily routine.

Pork is a mainstay of the Chinese diet. HKSM features a set of exhibits on pigs –their different parts, what they are called, how they get converted into different food products, how they contribute to nutrition, and to other uses as well! The exhibits also have some interesting statistics on the millions of pigs consumed in Hong Kong itself every year, and how a large percentage of these are imported from mainland China.

There is a section focused on energy use in the domestic context.  Exhibits give visitors a chance to see which appliances and applications consume the most electricity. The differences between different forms of lighting appear particularly stark. A similar theme is heating, and how different types of heating are energy efficient to varying degrees (e.g. induction heating vs. conventional heating). Mock-ups of different rooms in the house allow visitors to see how much energy is consumed in each.

Reflecting sustainability concerns, there is a section on trash and the re-cycling potential of different forms of trash. Some really interesting questions are on the typical composition of trash, which was the material to be re-cycled first (aluminium), which materials can be re-cycled indefinitely (glass), etc.

There is a section on how different home appliances work. This section includes simple workings as that of the toaster, and more complex ones such as the microwave oven, vacuum cleaner, and washing machine. Each exhibit shows the appliance, what it looks like inside, and the principles behind its working.

Another important section is one on occupational health and safety. This section covers the dos and don’ts in erecting a crane, managing a construction site, etc. I thought the theme is very relevant even if the scope of this section is somewhat limited. (This could be a very valuable section for people in India where we often display inadequate concern to occupational safety issues!).

Considering how different forms of communication have become integral to our daily lives, it was good to see a whole section devoted to telecommunications.  This includes details of how mobile communication systems work (including a nice practice demonstration of how a call is handed over from one cell tower to another), different forms of transmission  such as TDMA, FDMA, etc.

More Conventional Science Museum Exhibits

HKSM has more conventional sections as well. A well-designed section on optics features captivating images created through mirrors and lenses with explanations of how these images are created.
One of the most conspicuous exhibits is a huge and noisy apparatus near the entrance that is operated just a few times each day to show the different types of energy and how they can be converted from one form to another.

Electricity and magnetism is an enduring favourite for it allows some impactful demonstrations of turbines, generators, etc. Automotive and aircraft are well-represented too – highlights include a Mercedes Benz engine and Cathay Pacific Airline’s first aircraft (a Dakota), etc.

It was good to see that HKSM has exhibits professionally designed by companies who make museum equipment as well as practical devices designed by the students of local universities. For example, an apparatus that demonstrates the different features of waves has been made by Mechanical Engineering students of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. A good museum therefore provides important collaboration and learning opportunities for institutes of higher learning as well.

Overall Experience

I liked the way different types of exhibits and sections are mixed up, with more theoretical and informative ones interspersed with the interactive and practical. Of course, HKSM is not free of the challenge of keeping exhibits in working condition – some of the exhibits were not accessible because they needed repair. Somewhat inexplicably, a whole section on nuclear power was closed.

Biology and agriculture are clearly under-represented in the museum. An exception is the large section on soyabean, presented as a  “wonder of China” with impressive statistics on harvests and productivity, but this doesn’t make up for the absence of important fields such as genetics and molecular biology.

When we visited HKSM, there was a stunning exhibition of award-winning wildlife photography in the basement. I am still not sure how exactly this fits in with a science museum, but the photographs were so impressive that I guess no one is complaining. (One photo of two young tigers near a water body at Bandhavgarh National Park was very reminiscent of a scene we saw when we visited the part a couple of years ago).


A few decades ago (in the 1980s?), there was an effort to start science museums and planetariums across India. If I recall correctly, there was even a unit in the Department of Science and Technology to spearhead this effort. But it’s clear that the creation of museums has not kept pace with the growing population.

Though there is a lot that can be done on the internet, the excitement of seeing a working model before your eyes that you can touch and feel is important to spur innovation. Science museums can serve this purpose well. A strong network of science museums would go a long way to supplement the important work that organizations like the Agastya Foundation are doing to spread science education.

Supporting thematic science museums could be a powerful CSR initiative for our leading companies. Why can’t our IT companies contribute to the creation of museums related to the fields in which they work? 

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