For much of my childhood, the spring half-term break meant only one thing; time to voyage into central London for our annual visit to the Science Museum, in South Kensington. We went with great anticipation to see the space satellites hanging from the ceiling, the aircraft engines and the Apollo 10 capsule.
And yet, this is the very problem, which the Science Museum is only beginning to address. You spend a great deal of time looking at the amazing works of the past few centuries, but not a lot of time interacting with them. The lack of opportunity to get stuck in leaves many current generations of kids disengaged with static museum galleries.
Don’t get me wrong. I have always loved the Science Museum, and probably always will. But in Tokyo, I found a museum that felt like the Science Museum of the future.
The Miraikan (AKA the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation) in the bay side area of Tokyo, is one of the most notable museums I have ever visited. Every exhibit engages the visitor to touch and experiment with almost everything on show.
For example, visitors could try to keep their balance and manoeuvre across the floor with simply a gentle lean, on Honda’s new ‘UNI-CUB’ mobility device.
You could also book a conversation with an android called the ‘Otonaroid’, and watch it respond in real time to your verbal and body language.
The only feature of the museum that visitors were not encouraged to touch, feel or prod was the live demonstration of Honda’s ASIMO robot. Mesmerising nonetheless!
But the most impressive feature of the Miraikan is not its endless encouragement to engage with its pieces, nor its amazing array of scientific and technological artefacts. The Miraikan is absolutely worth a visit because it’s not afraid to make its visitors think; to ask difficult questions about their attitudes towards technology and environmentally-sustainable innovation.
And while this museum wasn’t designed for kids, it sure knew how to get them inspired to find answers to these difficult questions.
In one exhibit, a game invited the visitor to envisage an ideal world 50 years from now, and digitally projected their vision onto massive contoured panels in front of them. The player would then be asked to work back from that vision to make year-by-year decisions over agriculture, urban development and waste management. While inconsequential in the short term, the game would show them how these decisions brought them closer or further away from their long-term goal.
Another game featured a floor space that had been transformed with projectors into a digital ‘playground’ called Anagura. Visitors walked around with their digital doppelgänger – the ‘online you’, made up of hypothetical personal information – in tow. You could then interact with other visitors by choosing to withhold or share your personal information. The idea is that by creating connections between disparate data sets, humanity is thus equipped with an expanding knowledge bank that it can use to tackle major challenges. I have never seen such a unique and engaging method for teaching people about the benefits and risks of their digital data.
The Miraikan should perhaps be renamed the National Museum of Emerging Strategies for Science and Innovation. Past generations were inspired by museums showing them stupendous visions of the future. I believe the Miraikan does something more important and far more inspiring; it turns the tables and instead asks its visitors the question; what stupendous visions do you have for the future?