I visited the Science of Survival exhibition at the Science Museum in London a couple of days ago. Primarily for academic reasons, but also because I was hoping to extract myself from the swarms of small people on the main museum floor. Unfortunately, nobody explained to me that the exhibition room itself was mostly inhabited by a particular type of person - namely, small persons.
It was probably my own fault. I purchased my ticket before the giant cartoon characters guiding the way to the entrance loomed into view. Still, £6 is £6, and I was determined to undertake some serious critical evaluation. My apologies to one member of museum staff who got an impromptu grilling.
Now, I should stress that in general I'm a fan of innovative communication methods. But when innovative equals touch screens and flashy lights I get a bit twitchy. All very entertaining, for the small ones, but as Mr. Impromptu Grilling himself said, "Oh, it's engaging, but whether they learn anything is another matter."
Science of Survival has big ambitions. Once you get past the (actually quite misleading) title and the cartoon characters, you realise that what it's really trying to do is tackle the rather complicated issue of the future of our planet. But I'm not convinced many of the small people realised this. They were far too engaged in catching virtual pizza slices (jabbing buttons) to understand how this related to the population crisis and global poverty.
On paper, it must have looked like a great idea. Four characters, cleverly designed so that each kid would identify with one of them - Eco is the outdoorsy sort, Tek is the geek - and their virtual city, for which visitors are asked to design eco-cars and houses, and choose energy and water sources. Everything you do is stored on your visitor card and at the end, you plug it in to see how your ideas fit into the 'future city'.
Yes, on paper, it must have looked like the last word in public engagement - and a lovely example of two-way dialogue. And even in practice, if you take this thing seriously, you'll learn a lot. My problem is that nobody is taking it seriously. It's just somewhere you can take your kids to entertain them for an hour. According to Mr. Grilling, most parents were doing a pretty bad job of explaining the underlying issues. "It's really left up to us to do that." That's all very well Mr. Grilling, but there are only two of you and you've been standing staring at the wall for the past 15 minutes...
In any case, it's likely that any kid with an up-to-date games console is going to be distinctly underwhelmed by the quality of games on offer at Science of Survival. I noted that most small people were making their way through the different sections - relating to water, food, energy, transport etc - at quite a pace. Perhaps this was partly due to the lure of the 'future city' - and the fact that Eco, Tek and co. kept spoiling all the fun by jumping in to tell the kids why none of their answers were right.
I'm in total agreement with the virtual ones. There are no right answers when it comes to the saving the planet. But try telling that to a seven-year-old who has just built a snazzy-looking, virtual electric car and painted it orange. "Nice idea, kiddo - no petrol fumes, but you're going to have to build a nasty big power station to make your electricity. Tut tut. You can't win where the environment is concerned." Stuff that, thinks kiddo, computer games are about winning.
Maybe all this touch screen malarky is just no substitute for real hands-on and having someone explain it to you. A friend who works as an explainer recently vowed to wage war on touch screens. His words: "Why not just stick it all on the internet and make room for something more interactive?" I'm afraid I'm inclined to agree.
I should probably mention that there were also several sparkly glass cases housing eco things such as toilet-top sinks. They were labelled in very small print at above head height - if you're a small person, that is. But nobody, not even the tall people, was really bothered about those.