Unlike its earlier exhibits, the Science Museum’s new climate-change exhibition neither inspires nor educates.
A large wall of projected graphics greets you as you enter the London-based Science Museum’s new exhibition, Atmosphere: Exploring Climate Science. Disembodied voices read the words that appear across the monolith: ‘Science can show us that greenhouse gasses are increasing… Science can show us that the carbon cycle is being disrupted… Science can show us what’s already changing…’ But for all the talk of science, it was eco-propaganda on display.
Across print and online media, and throughout London’s transport infrastructure and beyond, an advertising campaign invites visitors to the exhibition, promising ‘a fresh and exciting way to make sense of the climate’. The truth is rather more disappointing: the exhibition has not really been designed to introduce minds to a new avenue of discovery; its purpose is to get them to be obedient to environmental diktats.
The first exhibit is a multi-user game called FLOOD ALERT, the objective of which is to maintain London’s flood defences from rising sea levels. Yawn. It had been abandoned by its previous players, whose score card was still on the screen: ‘Climate change turned out worse than you planned for. Bad planning can cost homes and lives.’ Science, nil; alarmism, one. The second exhibit is another interactive installation, which asks me to wave my arms around in front of the screen, in an effort to ‘move’ energy from the sun to the Earth. Meanwhile, simple facts about the transport of heat throughout the atmosphere appear. Next, interactive panels throughout the gallery offer to serve up facts about the climate, and information about a number of artefacts from climate science arranged between interactive exhibits; a slice of a tree, an ice core sample, a flask for taking gas samples. Riveting. I press a few buttons, and I am taken to a page which aims to answer the question, ‘what’s the difference between weather and climate?’.
I notice a trend developing. It seems that hi-tech, expensive, interactive exhibits are designed to hold the player’s attention, while climate-change factoids are delivered on the sly. This trend is borne out by the remainder of the exhibition. Another game invites me to first fire warmth from the sun through the gaps in clouds, and then to move particles of CO2 in the path of heat energy escaping out to space. Thus I get a lesson in atmospheric science in return for playing a rather dull game.
At the other end of the gallery, yet another interactive touch-screen display offers to serve up information about a large ‘house of cards’ mural painted on the wall. I press the button promising the answer, ‘why did the artist make this artwork?’: ‘House of Cards highlights the fragility of the interconnected system we live within. David says “My artwork is a scaled-up drawing of a house of cards. The metaphor I have used is quite a straightforward one: our atmosphere and environment are in a very delicate balance; a balance that it could be disastrous for us to upset.”’
Oh, the artistic subtlety! A house of cards! So much for ‘art’, but what about the scientific basis for the claim that there exists ‘balance’, that it is ‘delicate’, and that our security is premised on this delicate balance being sustained? The notion of our existing in a fragile, dependent relationship with the planet’s natural processes seems to owe much more to a pre-existing sense of anxiety and insecurity about the human world than to anything produced by science.
Science – or ‘science’ – is merely the means by which this anxiety is expressed. Move forward through the exhibition, for instance, and another interactive display offers video vox pops of people in the street, including one woman saying that ‘without the government introducing some sort of nanny-state type initiatives, I don’t think that people will be pushing towards those things…’. Another game offers me the opportunity to play the part of a virtual energy minister – a kind of eco Sim City in which you can build different types of power plant, from tidal to coal, to cope with the virtual city’s energy demand and its emissions targets. This exhibition, much as climate-change alarmism, simply isn’t about science; it’s about establishing a basis – an ethic – for the management of public life.
The really exciting stuff in the Science Museum, the things I remember from my own childhood visits, are elsewhere in the building. The kinetic ‘hands-on’ exhibits, the working mechanical telephone exchange, the model of the first particle accelerator and, of course, the space gallery, are all far more interesting. The difference between these galleries and Atmosphere is that they seem to articulate what it is possible to do with science, rather than what it is necessary to do according to science. In the climate-change gallery, science is morally instructive; elsewhere science seems to respond to human needs, wants and ambition.
The interactive displays attempt to make the scientific content appealing. But they fail. Today’s children are not as easily confused about the medium and the message as Atmosphere‘s designers seem to think. Wrapping dry technical fact in hi-tech media hardware does little to stimulate an interest in the message in the way that young people can be encouraged to explore science by experiencing something with a genuine ‘wow factor’: this item took men to the moon; this was the machine that made communication possible across entire continents. The reality of science is that it is deadly boring until a person has developed an interest in both it and the world.
Back in the exhibition, a foreign-exchange student re-appropriates the space to take a nap. Younger children press screens randomly, desperately hoping to make the ‘interactive’ exhibits yield something interesting. Adults browse the screens with faux interest. The evidence is clear, the debate is over: climate change is not, as has been claimed by many, ‘our moon landing’, nor even the ‘defining issue of our generation’. The failure of the attempt to reinvent today in the terms of the Kennedy era is demonstrated by the endurance of the space gallery, seen in contrast to the already passé and frankly naff exhibits of Atmosphere.
The contrast between the space race and today’s low aspirations epitomised by Atmosphere invites a further comparison of the prevailing ideologies of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and their propaganda. For all the world’s deep and dangerous problems that belied the optimism surrounding the Apollo programme, and of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s missions, they remain uplifting reminders of what is possible. The contemporary preoccupation with climate change, on the other hand, yields only joyless propaganda: an antithesis to the progress promised in the past.
Atmosphere fails in its own right as an interesting exhibition of science. As an attempt to engage the public, however, it is a superb exhibition of environmental dogma, of the establishment’s condescension and its disorientation and lack of purpose. ‘Science’ fills the void. It turns today’s politicians into mediums bearing important messages. It makes today’s bland politics seem responsive to an urgent necessity. And it creates stories to turn hollow political agendas into progressive visions of the future.
Ben Pile is an editor of the Climate-Resistance blog.