My first astronomical experiences in Dunedin


Since moving to Dunedin in New Zealand in late May, I have been extraordinarily impressed by both the lack of light pollution near the city, and by several amazing displays of the Aurora Australis. I have also started to re-discover my love of astronomy,
inspired by the beautiful southern hemisphere night sky.

On Saturday 1st June, my son Gus and I decided to go for a walk to the local beach some 500m from our house in St. Clair. Luckily I took my camera along, and when we got to the beach, I was excited to see a full blown display of the aurora in progress.

IMG_1223


Six days later, on Friday 6th June, another Aurora was visible at second beach.
IMG_1488
A 30 second exposure of the Aurora taken using a Canon Digital Rebel camera with a standard 18-55mm lens.

I was so excited I decided to drive to a dark sky site, this time south of Brighton Otago where the display faded, but the night sky was superb. Here’s a picture I shot just after I arrived
IMG_1521
Same camera, same lens, but from dark sky site, south of Brighton Otago.

Roughly one month later, again during the dark of the moon, another auroral display summoned me to Brighton
IMG_0399_2
This time clouds were a problem, but the display got better and better so I stuck around...

IMG_0414Despite the clouds, the display was very active, and a number of bands became visible near the horizon.

IMG_0423
The green colour of this display was particularly impressive, and I took a number of pictures using some plants in the foreground.

IMG_0524
Another few days, and another aurora, this one on the 11th July. which was very active, with lots of bands racing across the sky.

IMG_0492_2

In short I am loving the night sky here in Dunedin, it’s amazing. Stay tuned for more pictures soon.
0 Comments

Why are the pintle & gudgeon from HMS Bounty at the Otago Museum?

A Museum Detective Story

When I first visited the Otago Museum earlier this year, one of the exhibits that immediately fascinated me was the collection or artefacts from HMS Bounty which can be found in our Pacific Cultures gallery.

The artefacts include a number of small items such as nails and a small ballast stone, but the collection also includes a large copper pintle and gudgeon, part of the ships rudder.

IMG_0231
Objects from HMS Bounty on display in the Otago Museum

Being English, I am of course very familiar with the story of the mutiny on HMS Bounty. Bounty was a ship under the command of Captain William Bligh, on a mission to carry breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies.

On 28th April 1789 Fletcher Christian seized command of the Bounty, set Captain William Bligh adrift. Christian eventually settled with his rebellious crewmates on Pitcairn Island. The Bounty itself was destroyed by the mutineers on 23rd January 1790 and sank off the coast of Pitcairn Island in a place which is still called Bounty Bay.

I remember when I first saw the Bounty Collection, wondering why on earth a museum in Dunedin had bits of the Bounty, but, as with all things, that question hung in my mind and wasn’t answered immediately, as other priorities took hold (in defence of my apparent lack of curiosity, I was moving job and changing country during this period!)

A few weeks ago, the Otago Museum (of which I am now the Director) was visited by the British High Commissioner to New Zealand, Vicki Treadell. In researching her role prior to her visit, I noted that in addition to her duties as High Commissioner, she is also Governor of the Pitcairn Islands and thus thought it would be a great idea to show her the relics from the Bounty, and a rather nice Moai (human stone figure) which is also from Pitcairn, and also on display in the Museum’s Pacific Cultures gallery.

IMG_0261
Human Figure from Pitcairn Island

Of course when Vicki visited the Museum, I took her to the gallery, showed her the relics from the Bounty and the Moai, and of course her first question was “why do you have these objects in your collection?”. Of course I couldn’t answer the question, and resolved to find out. In passing I would also note that Vicki was probably also asking why, given a law forbidding the removal of Cultural Objects

My first stop was with one of the Collections team at the Museum, Moira White. Moira agreed to search our Collections Management System and see what documentation we have about the Bounty Relics and Moai.

This is where things started to get interesting.

All Moira could initially find was a letter from W.R.B. Oliver, the Director of the Dominion Museum in Wellington (now called Te Papa) referring to an attached letter from Parkin Christian which unfortunately was not attached and was missing from our files.
Oliver to Skinner[4]

Letter from Director of Dominion Museum to Director of Otago Museum, 8th March 1935

Who was Parkin Christian and why was he writing to the Dominion Museum and offering bits of the Bounty? Why not write to Museums in England, or the Admiralty, who actually still owned the Bounty? And why didn’t the Dominion Museum want the objects? The mystery deepened!

Moira also found in our files a copy of a letter dated 8th August 1935
from the Director of the Otago Museum, H.D. Skinner to the New Zealand Missionary College in Longburn (now known as the Longburn Adventist college) referring to a payment of 20 pounds for the pintle and gudgeon, but making payment to the College, rather than Parkin Christian…

missionary-letter
Letter from HD Skinner to NZ Missionary College, August 1935

So the mystery became even deeper; why was the Museum paying a Missionary College for the material?

My research now took two separate approaches.

First I did some internet research to see if I could try and find out more about Parkin Christian and other relics from the Bounty.

Secondly, on a hunch, I wrote to the archivists at each of the other major Museums in New Zealand to see if they could help with a more complete copy of the original correspondence from WRB Oliver (I assumed that a copy of Parkin’s letter would have been sent to both Auckland and Canterbury Museums as well as Otago, so I emailed Te Papa, Auckland and Canterbury to see if they could help).

Parkin Christian
Sometimes, google can be your best friend, and on this occasion it really helped. It turns out that there is a wealth of information about Pitcairn online and simply googling “Parkin Christian” revealed a lot! During the course of my research, I also discovered the Pitcairn Island Study Centre at Pacific Union College (and it’s Director Herbert Ford turned out to be a particularly useful source of information!)

Picture-Taker-I316uw
Parkin Christian

My research revealed that Charles Richard Parkin Christian was a prominent resident of Pitcairn. He was born on 27th November 1883 as the third of nine children. His Parents were Francis Hickson Christian and Eunice Jane Lawrence Young. Parkin himself married Rosalind Eliza Butler, and together they had three children, a daughter Lorena (born in 1910 but who died a few days after birth), another daughter Marjorie, born in 1912, and a third child, their son Richard, born in 1915 (remember Richard as he becomes a key player in the story later!)

Parkin was a very important member of the Pitcairn Community, serving as coxswain of one of the Island boats for many years, and also eight terms as Island Magistrate (equivalent to Mayor of the Island).

Most importantly, internet research revealed that Parkin Christian was the person who, in the early 1930’s found and recovered the rudder from the Bounty, which had been on the ocean floor in Bounty Bay since the ship was burned and sunk by the mutineers.

Herb Ford provided me with a copy of an article from the Australasian Record, of the Australian Division of the Seventh Day Adventist faith from May 28th 1934 tells the story of the rudder’s recovery

Pasted Graphic 3
Page 3 of Australasian Record, May 28 1934

Interestingly the large piece of rudder shown in the article is now on display in the Fiji Museum in Suva. The reasons for it being in Fiji are explained in some detail in an article by Maurice Allward in the second edition of the Pitcairn Postcard Magazine (copy supplied by Herb Ford). The article includes some pictures of the rudder outside Parkin Christian’s house

IMG_0369
Parkin Christian with rudder remnant outside his house

To summarise, once the rudder had been recovered, large chunks of it were being taken as souvenirs by visitors to the Island, and in 1941 a decision was taken (supported by the Admiralty in London who still owned the Bounty!) to send the remaining parts of the rudder to the Museum in Fiji for safe keeping. Entertainingly, in “payment” for the rudder, the islanders received a “first class wireless receiving set”.

page1image256

Remaining parts of Bounty Rudder on display at Fiji Museum

So we now know that Parkin Christian recovered various parts of the rudder, and the main part is now on display in Fiji. But we still don’t know why, in 1935, Parkin decided to try and sell the pintle and gudgeon to a Museum or Museums in New Zealand.

Further research into our own records at the Otago Museum, uncovered 2 letters from Parkin to H.D. Skinner, both dated November 10th 1935. The first is particularly important because it gives a first hand description of the circumstances of the rudder’s discovery, which Parkin states was in October 1933. The letter also speaks to the fact that these are artefacts from the Bounty, and notes that while other Museum’s had asked for them, only Skinner offered any money for them!

Pasted Graphic 6
Page 1 of letter from Parkin Christian to HD Skinner, November 10th 1935

Pasted Graphic 7
Page 2 of letter from Parkin Christian to HD Skinner, November 10th 1935

On the same day that Parkin wrote the above letter, he wrote a second letter, presumably in response to another letter he had received from Skinner seeking assurance about the provenance of the pintle and gudgeon. In this second letter, Christian again describes the circumstances of the rudders discovery and recovery; in this letter Christian states that

it was taken up in a depth of 42 feet of water it cannot be seen with the naked eye when using what was made up into a diving glass case which we use when we go and take the fish with hook and line we use such instrument which we can locate or see anything at the depth of 25 fathom or 150 feet”

Christian seeks to reassure Skinner that the objects he has in the University Museum are from the Bounty;

Parkin states “if ever you come across any paper that state they have taken up such thing just you back against it because there is no truth in it”

Pasted Graphic 8
Page 1 of second letter from Christian to Skinner, Novermber 1935

Pasted Graphic 9
Page 2 of Second Letter from Christian to Skinner, November 1935

So we now know that Parkin Christian discovered and recovered the Rudder from HMS Bounty in October 1933, following a storm which moved some sand that had previously been covering the wreckage. He found the rudder using a diving glass, a device which helped the Pitcairners see into the ocean when fishing.

But why did Parkin sell the pintle and gudgeon to a Museum in New Zealand?

This is where the second strand of my research also paid dividends.

Unfortunately, the archivist at Te Papa could find no record of the original correspondence between Christian and W. R. B. Oliver.

However, the archivist at the Auckland Museum did find a copy of the correspondence, and it unlocked the mystery completely.

Like us at the Otago Museum, they had received a letter from W R B Oliver

Pasted Graphic 10

But unlike The Otago Museum, Auckland had a copy of the original letter from Parkin Christian, and it contains an explanation as to why he is writing to Museums in New Zealand...

Pasted Graphic 11
The original letter from Parkin Christian to Director of the Dominion Museum Wellington, 13th November 1934

It turns out that in the early 1930’s Parkin’s son Richard was studying at the NZ Missionary College, and Parkin didn’t have enough money to see his son through college. So the Bounty’s Pintle and Gudgeon were offered for sale to Museum’s in New Zealand, in the hope that one would be prepared to pay.

This is why The Otago Museum sent a cheque to the NZ Missionary College, and it also explains why the Otago Museum has artefacts from the Bounty. Parkin’s second letter to HD Skinner in November 1935 also explains why The Otago Museum has a Moai, since Parkin mentions in the last paragraph that “as for the stone god, if all goes well it will be shipped on the Tamaroa” Skinner had obviously asked if Christian had any other objects of interest during the course of correspondence about purchase of the gudgeon and pintle. Herb Ford has noted that Tamaroa was a frequent caller at Pitcairn in the 1930s - He record her often in his book (second edition) "Pitcairn Island as a Port of Call" (McFarland), in which he lists every ship (with particulars about each call) that called at Pitcairn from the arrival of the Bounty in 1790 to 2011.

Incidentally, it is fascinating that while HD Skinner in Otago jumped at the chance to purchase these objects, both the Dominion Museum and the Auckland Museum rejected the idea of purchasing the Pintle and Gudgeon; the letter from the Director of the Auckland Museum to the Director of the Dominion Museum shows very little interest in the objects.

Pasted Graphic 12
Letter from Director of Auckland Museum to Director Dominion Museum 8th March 1935

So… there you have it. It turns out that the reason The Otago Museum has the pintle and gudgeon from HMS Bounty is that Parkin Christian’s son was studying at Missionary College in New Zealand, and he was running out of money (like many other parents of college students around the world!) Couple this with H.D. Skinner, a highly entrepreneurial Director of the Otago Museum at the time who could see the historic value of the objects while the other Directors of Museums in New Zealand couldn’t, and you get a set of circumstances where key objects from Pitcairn’s history end up in the collection of the Otago Museum.

Just one story about a small set of objects in our Museum. It’s stories like this that are the reason I love working in Museums!

I’d like to thank Moira White from the Otago Museum and Herb Ford Director of the Pitcairn Islands Study Centre for their help in putting together this blog. I’d also like to thank the archivists at Te Papa, and The Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Director of the Canterbury Museum for their help in my research.

Ian Griffin, 14th July 2013. All rights reserved!


0 Comments

Otago Museum Vision: Remarks at my welcome event 18th June 2013


Kia Ora Tatou

I’d like to thank Matapura Ellison for his gracious and generous welcome, Prof. Longhorn for announcing my honorary fellowship in Physics at the University of Otago, Graham Crombie for his thoughtful introduction and also, most importantly, all for coming out on this cold evening between weather fronts to welcome me to the Museum.

Just over four weeks ago, my son Gus and I left our home, a little village with 400 residents and one pub, called Ludgershall in Buckinghamshire. Thirty-five hours and one aborted landing later we arrived at Dunedin airport to start our new life here in Aotearoa.

When thinking about what I was going to say tonight, I realized there is actually a link between Ludgershall, and Dunedin.

Between 1368 and 1374 the parish priest of our Village Church, St Mary the Virgin was a man called John Wycliffe, who in addition to translating the Bible from Latin to English also lent his name to the ship which on 23rd March 1848 arrived in Port Chalmers carrying 97 passengers, who, like Gus and I, were seeking their fortunes in Otago.

Despite almost Biblical extremes of weather since our arrival, including torrential rain, snow, hail, fog occasional sunshine and two stunning displays of the aurora australis, what has really stood out to us both has been the extraordinary kindness shown to us as two new migrants to this city. So thank you.

I’m sure when my wife Maria and daughters Hope and Merope join us in a month or so, they too will quickly appreciate the beautiful and friendly place that is Dunedin. As Cam McCracken, Director of the Art Gallery said to me just the other day, Dunedin isn’t cold, its cool, and to me that brilliantly sums up this amazing city.

It could even be a strap line for a new marketing campaign. Dunedin, not cold but cool…

Graham has asked me to say a few words about my vision for the museum and hint at new directions or future priorities. He noted that changing Directors at the Otago Museum is a once in a generation thing and indeed having a new Director is fairly unusual; in fact I am only the eighth Director since the Museum first opened to the public in 1868. That means on average the Director of the Otago Museum serves just over eighteen years so I am very much looking forward to at least two decades here in Dunedin!

So what is my vision for the Museum?

Obviously my first job is to build on the exceptional work carried out by my predecessors. My role is to lead the evolution of a Museum that is much loved, hugely popular and viewed as necessary rather than nice by our local community.

I have spent time during my early weeks here in Dunedin meeting with community representatives, many of whom are here tonight. A lot of you have shared your thoughts about the role of the Museum. I appreciate the time you have spent helping me understand how important this Museum is to the City of Dunedin and to the whole of Otago.

I have listened to what you have told me, and, over the next few weeks and months I will be using your thoughts and ideas to inform my discussions with the team here at the Museum as we shape the Museum’s future direction.

As I have already stated, The Otago Museum serves an important role in our community. So where do I think it should go next?

Lets step back a bit and think about what a Museum actually is….

According to the International Council of Museums, ICOM

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

While the ICOM definition is accurate, it is also soulless and dispassionate and definitely not the language I would choose to use.

Museums need passion and that’s why I like Frank Oppenheimer’s vision for what a Museum should be: Oppenheimer, was a Physicist, and he founded The Exploratorium, the world’s first interactive museum. For Oppenheimer

“A museum should not be a substitute for a school or a classroom but it should be a place where people come both to teach and to learn. Visitors should be able to find it refreshing and stimulating. Above all it should be honest and thus convey the understanding that science and technology have a role which is deeply rooted in human values and aspirations.”

I prefer Oppenheimer’s words to those of ICOM, but for me they are still not quite right.

I have a slightly more pragmatic view of museums born out of my own experience

Museums change lives and inspire curiosity….

I know this from personal experience…

Nearly forty years ago, my dad, took me on a day trip to the Science Museum in South Kensington in London. Dad wasn’t a great Museum visitor because he worked long hours trying to earn enough to look after my mum and their four children. Money was tight.

We went to the Science Museum because entry was free, and because since I had started watching Star Trek, I had become obsessed with spaceflight.

Dad decided a museum visit would be just the job to keep me quiet!

I was amazed by what I saw that day. Looking back, I know that single visit to a Museum transformed my life; it motivated me to study science and it set me on a path that led me to become the first member of my family to go to university and get a Ph.D.

A museum visit changed my life.

As a result I consider it my personal mission to ensure that, whatever I do, and wherever I work, I make sure to reach out and engage with all members of society. Male or female, Rich or poor, young or old, Pakeha or Maori, my aim is to make sure this museum has something to enthrall and inform you.

Unfortunately the power of Museums to inspire is sometimes overlooked by some in our field who prefer metrics and performance indicators to inspiration.

How can you measure inspiration they ask? Focus on what you can measure and improve it.

I’m not so sure the sheer joy and thrill of discovery I felt when I first visited the Science Museum can ever be measured. Nor should it be.

Of course modern management science is important and should be embraced, but it’s only one side of an equation that needs to be balanced with passion, curiosity and of course intellectual authority.

This balance is important because I have met countless scientists, engineers, historians and even astronauts who can trace the initial spark that ignited their career to a Museum visit.

Tomorrow’s Kiwi innovators are visiting our Museum right now, every day and this and every Museum in Aotearoa has a duty to inspire them by creating stimulating exhibitions and programmes and by encouraging them to explore, research and make sense of their cultural heritage.

Museums like ours, whose collection includes not just local material, but also artifacts from other cultures are powerful forces for societal change.

I honestly believe that understanding the complex world we inhabit is one of the most important reasons to visit a museum. A few years ago, Neil McGregor, the Director of the British Museum put it well. He asked

“What are the risks for our society? It strikes me that one of the greatest dangers we face is that we accept the very simple labels of different parts of the world, whether it is the West or European thinking of Islam or whatever.

Actually behind those labels lies a very complicated set of interlocking and overlapping truths. “

This is what a visit to a museum like ours shows, just how unsatisfactory those simple labels are. It's therefore not usually safe to take up a position convinced that you alone are right.

I have spoken in general terms about my view that inspiration is key. More than anything I want this Museum to continue to inspire curiosity in our visitors.

As with all things, specifics are useful and I’d like to share my first thoughts on what I see as the Museum’s main priorities going forward.

To me there are five of them. They very much build upon the priorities in the Museum’s existing plans.

Firstly, and most importantly, preserving, researching, interpreting and increasing access to the Otago Museum’s Collections both online and in the real world is vital.

The primary duty of any museum is to preserve our cultural heritage for future generations and under my Directorship I will certainly commit to ensuring this happens.

However, I don’t just want to lock up the collection to protect it,

I want to put more of it on display and use it as the basis for brilliant exhibitions both online and at the Museum.

I want to welcome and encourage researchers from science and the humanities to glean new knowledge from it and I want our curatorial team to be regarded as world leading experts, speaking with authority in their fields.


I also want to take advantage of the power of the Internet and social media to open up our collection to new audiences, taking it beyond our walls.

Secondly, The Otago Museum must serve as a forum.

This Museum is seen as a neutral and safe space, open to all no matter what your culture, creed age or gender. I’d like to use this neutrality as a way of bringing together people to debate and discuss the issues that confront our city, our country and our planet in the 21st century. The Museum should not be afraid of controversy, and should foster debate about issues such as climate change, fracking and animal testing, all of which are controversial but important to wider society.

Thirdly, The Museum must play a major role in educating and inspiring the next generation of New Zealanders.

I have already spoken of the power of Museums to inspire, but we must not forget the importance of developing formal education programmes aligned to school curricula. Each year, our Museum is visited by tens of thousands of schoolchildren, and we interact with every school in our region. This museum plays an important part in the Otago Education scene, and will certainly continue to do so under my Directorship.

Fourthly, The museum must continue to encourage staff to realise their potential.

In my first weeks here I have been astounded by the quality of our staff and seen how dedicated, talented and hard working they are. It’s my responsibility to ensure that we continue to nurture and develop this immense pool of talent, and help them to become the next generation of Museum leaders.

Fifthly and finally the Museum must use the pubic money we receive from the ratepayers of our region wisely and we must seek to maximize income from our own commercial operations.

While public funding is essential for any Museum collection as important as ours, the Museum shouldn’t, and doesn’t rely on public funding alone.


It’s much to the credit of the museum team here tonight that each year we match, dollar for dollar, every penny of public money with money generated by our own commercial activities.

Initiatives like Tropical Forest not only generate significant income but are also wonderful educational assets. Tropical Forest is proof that making money isn’t just about having a good shop and café (although ours are both excellent)

Generating income is not easy. However we are committed to running a tight commercial ship because we think it’s the right thing to do.

I’d like to finish by sharing a story that perhaps best describes my vision for this Museum.

I’d like you to imagine that it is September 2018.

You are a young girl, and your family is on a day trip to Dunedin.

Thanks to a number of initiatives, many championed by the Museum, Dunedin has been recognized by UNESCO as the World’s greenest city.

You are on a day trip to visit the completely refurbished Otago Museum which opened the latest of its new suite of galleries last week, just in time to celebrate it’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary.

The Museum has expanded significantly over the past five years. In addition to its seven major galleries, it now has a state of the art immersive planetarium theatre and “the sandpit” an innovative space that showcases the research going on at Otago’s world class University and Polytechnic.

Mum parks at the Mosgiel Park and Ride, and after a short wait, one of the Museum’s buses, powered by locally invented fuel cells, arrives to pick you up. The bus whisks you silently through the City and drops you off outside The Museum in Dunedin’s thriving University Quarter. Dad looks longingly at the recently renovated Cook Pub which still serves a good pint, but which now serves as a joint outreach centre for the Museum and University of Otago.

After crossing a beautiful reserve containing an extraordinary sundial you enter a stunning energy efficient building whose roof is covered with tracking solar arrays that you later learn generate over fifty percent of the Museum’s energy needs.

You are greeted by Rachael, a friendly member of staff at the front desk, and purchase tickets for the ‘stars of aotearoa’ planetarium show the “Wonders of Dunedin Biotechnology” exhibition and a visit to the Tropical Forest. You are also keen to visit the Tangata Whenua gallery, which last year won the top award for innovation at the Museums Aotearoa Conference.

Following a snack in the “food-science cafe” where you enjoy tasty produce (some grown in publicly accessible hydroponic tanks on the roof) you head into the Museum and spend the day immersed in the culture of Otago.

This visit to the Otago Museum changes your life.

Forty years later as you cross the stage to accept the 2058 Nobel prize for Medicine as New Zealand’s first female Nobel Laureate, you recall how you were inspired to take an interest in science and can trace your career path from school through university, to founding your own biotechnology company (based in Dunedin and now employing several hundred locals) right back to that first visit to the Otago Museum.

The journey described above is imaginary, but it is one that I believe, with your support, can be made real.

To find out more talk to me and the team here this evening!

Inspiration is our business, because The Otago Museum changes lives.

Museums, change lives.


Thank you.
0 Comments

Interpretation in Science Museums revisitied

In this morning’s blog I have decided to revisit a subject I last wrote about back in 2010, namely the idea of, as I described it back then, new approaches to interpretation, or humanising science in science centres and Science Museums. In part this revisit is a response to a recent polemic about science museums and their approach to interpretation over research here in New Zealand, by Bob Brockie, but there are many other reasons to re-examine my thoughts about the role of a modern museum in times of austerity around the world.

As the recently appointed Director of one of New Zealand’s four Metropolitan Museums charged with oversight of its future direction, and as a scientist, I take all perspectives on the role and future of museums seriously; not just because I respect Bob Brockie’s opinion, but because in a time when resources (read public funds) are ever more scarce, the balance between the research and engagement priorities of Museums is a matter of huge importance.

Funding is critical, because without it, we risk the very future of our institutions. This is not an exaggeration. Financial issues are threatening to close some institutions already. For example, in the UK, the
scarcity of public funding is being used by the Science Museum Group as an argument for possibly closing a major Science Museum in either Manchester, Bradford or York. As the former director of one of these Museums (I directed MOSI in Manchester from 2004-2007) I am appalled that this situation has arisen, and I very much hope that a way forward can be found that allows the wonderful collection in Manchester to be enjoyed by future generations. Politicians and the Museum sector need to work together to find a solution that ensures a sustainable future for MOSI and her sister institutions in the North. And to my mind, culture (and by culture I include science!) should not London centric but distributed around the country.

With financial issues to the fore, museum directors have to develop business models that allow their institutions to be sustainable in the long term, preserve their collections for future generations and also inspire visitors curiosity about the world around them. It is a real challenge, but in my opinion not one that is impossible. I hope I can write a more expansive blog summarising my thoughts on that particular issue in future.

Back to interpretation.

When I last wrote about this topic, my perspective was that of someone trying to create a new science centre (then called Ideaopolis, now called
The Magnet) in Oxford. I had also just been appointed a Noyce Leadership Fellow for 2009/10. That Fellowship was a revelation, as it allowed me to spend a year working with 17 extraordinarily talented leaders of other Science Museums and Science Centres from around the world. Incorporating a seminar series and contributions from some leaders in the field, my Fellowship has shaped my subsequent thinking about the role of (especially) science museums in the 21st Century.

I guess that Bob Brockie’s polemic, together with a desire to write down what I have learned over the past 23 years working in
Armagh, Cocoa, Auckland, Baltimore , Manchester , Oxford and now Dunedin have stimulated me to write something as part of an ongoing process to think things through.

While this opinion piece certainly doesn’t reflect any attempt on my part to claim originality it is a distillation of the things I am thinking about. I feel that I am on a journey, and this blog reflects my opinions and ideas as they stand in June 2013. In writing this blog, I have tried to reflect current ideas and practice from across the world; my reading included items as varied as
The Toronto Declaration, The roadmap for public dialogue about science and technology, and a number of other important (and unimportant) documents and papers.

I will begin with some thoughts about science centres and science museums. In particular how we actually present science and technology as a culture rather than as a set of achievements or facts to be remembered and astounded by. Do we embrace science and scientists, and make them central to our purpose and activity, or do we focus in interactivity and engagement and not prioritise the research role, or the research behind the cultural knowledge we are seeking to communicate?

As Brockie put it when writing about
Te Papa:


“I have the feeling that Te Papa's managers think the natural history collections and its staff of scientists are an expensive liability and would happily sell the lot to any Dubai or Macau potentate.

Because of the limited parochial scope and the singing, dancing tone of Te Papa, many have suggested that Wellington needs two more museums. One exhibiting European, African, Asian and American culture, the other a Museum of Natural History exhibiting the world's stuffed animals, skeletons, fossils and butterflies, and staffed with some distinguished scientists.”


As a recent immigrant to New Zealand, I don’t want to go anywhere near the debate about the purpose and nature of our National Museum. However, as the new leader of the Otago Museum, I am very interested in where I think our institution should focus its work in years to come.

Let me begin with a favourite quote.

A museum should not be a substitute for a school or a classroom but it should be a place where people come both to teach and to learn. Visitors should be able to find it refreshing and stimulating. Above all it should be honest and thus convey the understanding that science and technology have a role which is deeply rooted in human values and aspirations.
Frank Oppenheimer, founder of the Exploratorium

The above quote is, in my opinion, one of the best descriptions of what a museum or a science centre can be since it recognises that museums have a responsibility to both teach (and therefore, by implication research) but also to stimulate (or to use a more modern word that I prefer… to inspire).

It undoubtedly helped kick start a new approach to interpretation in museums which led to the Science Centre movement and the flourishing of interactive interpretation in Museums around the world. However, some people (like Brockie) are worried that this growth in interactivity has been at the expense of the research and teaching roles of Museums. To some extent this is certainly true; not just Te Papa, but other Museums too are cutting back on curatorial expertise, which can be seen as an expensive luxury when times are tough.
In the 1930’s my own institution the Otago Museum was seen as one of the worlds great teaching Museums; while we do still play a role in teaching, it is now somewhat peripheral to our role of preserving and interpreting our collection for local people.

My own view is that both research and interactivity are essential, and that a balance has to be found between the two within the financial constraints that limit all museums these days. If (to use Oppenheimer’s quote) Museums are there to teach and to and inspire, then we absolutely need to embrace the latest research
not only in our subject matter but also into the ways our visitors learn. So in my view, in addition to scientists, my view is that museums need educators, communicators and many other skills (including very smart commercial talent) if they are to survive and, dare I say it, prosper.

In passing I do often question whether our field has fully embraced the last part of Oppenheimer’s statement “
that science and technology have a role which is deeply rooted in human values and aspirations”. I for one can’t remember the last time I encountered human values and human aspirations in a science centre or science museum. Many institutions appear to be soulless and clinical rather than embracing and passionate.

For example, galleries like ‘
Making the Modern World” at the Science Museum in London definitively showcase the hard technology of science, yet they fail completely to capture the lives, the passions or the emotions of the people involved in creating the amazing objects they contain. And although every hands on gallery at every science centre in the world is full of excited people drawn to engaging interactive exhibits, in science centres too the humans behind the science are missing. I believe that we are missing a trick here, Science is a human endeavour, and I agree with Oppenheimer that values and aspirations are a vital part of our story.

There is research to back this up. While at
MOSI in Manchester, I led an effort to create a plan for the Museum’s future, and part of that effort involved audience research into what makes a “dream gallery”. (A dream gallery is one which has broad appeal to a wide audience). The research strongly suggested that if a gallery contained 4 key elements

  • Moving Machinery
  • A clear storyline
  • Interactivity
  • Human stories

Then it would be very successful in terms of engaging visitors to the Museum’s galleries. I suggest that the fourth item, human stories is a key element that is missing from many science museums and science centres the world over.

And humanity is so important!

If we are serious about inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers, then we need to make our institutions relevant to the young people we wish to inspire, and one way of doing this is to present scientists as real humans. Lets use these role models to inspire visitors! Some exhibitions have of course already taken this approach with some success (eg
1001 inventions ) and the Darwin Centre in the Natural History Museum in London but it would be nice to see it proliferating more in our field. It’s certainly something I am thinking about how we can do more of at the Otago Museum.

If this means that sometimes we show that scientists can be flawed (eg.
Robert Millikan’s cosmetic surgery on his oil drop experiment data, or the dreadful past of Werner von Braun ) then that’s OK; like all humans scientists can be good and bad and it is our duty as honest practitioners to describe the full spectrum of science. It is my view that any science centre or museum should not just paint an entirely positive picture about science, we should position ourselves as “critical friends of science” cheerleading where appropriate but also asking difficult questions too. To do otherwise would badly let down our visitors, many of whom see Museums as authoritative sources of information.







0 Comments

Welcome to Dunedin


So I have finally arrived in my new hometown of Dunedin, to take up a new role at the Otago Museum. I arrived here just under three weeks ago with my son Aengus, as the first wave of our family emigration from the UK.

it’s only now that I have been able to sort out my computer to the extent that I can actually post blogs again… At least I hope I can, which is why I am writing this short one.

Highlights of the past three weeks have definitely all involved Dunedin and it’s extraordinary environment. Here are a few pictures to illustrate my new home….

IMG_0003
A Gekko in the Tropical Forest at my new work, the Otago Museum

IMG_0011
My son at the local beach

IMG_0145
Dunedin is quite a long way from many places!

IMG_0033
Local Wildlife

IMG_1525
The local night sky!
0 Comments