Anne Gardom visits a Birmingham museum which looks to the future
Birmingham has always been a city that has prided itself on its museums, galleries and civic buildings. The Birmingham City Art Gallery is a witness to the importance the city has always placed on learning and the arts. The new Birmingham Museum of Science and Discovery at Millennium Point carries on this tradition. It is housed in part of a modern complex. The large new building houses offices as well as the museum. Its wonderful interior spaces, huge plate glass walls and escalators with luminous blue handrails give it a very twenty-first century feel.
The museum itself – Thinktank – has nine exhibition areas, each with a different theme. It re-houses many exhibits from the Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry and they are a splendid tribute to the city’s industrial heritage. ‘Innovation in science and technology changes our life and underpins the way we live – in the past, present and future’ (Thinktank’s main statement of purpose).
As you go in you find yourself in The Street, an area which looks at the science behind everyday things. Why do road signs glow? What does a barcode do? How do cameras know you are speeding?
In Newton’s Arcade, Newton’s Laws of Motion are demonstrated by means of arcade-type machines. There is also an area here for the under-7s, hugely popular and full of small people operating an Archimedes screw to raise water, and demonstrating how locks work on a canal.
In Things About Me there is much to be learnt in a very accessible and entertaining way, including the mysteries of the digestive system, graphically explained, and the development of the unborn child.
Medicine Matters is an area where new medical discoveries are displayed and explained. Among other things we can explore the complex part that genes play in our health and the ways genetic information can target and fight specific diseases and inherited health risks.
‘We have come to believe that almost anything is possible in medicine – a cure for cancer, old age, infertility. The more we can do the more we have to ask why we are doing it’ – Dr George Forster, Medical Advisor to Thinktank. This is a salutary thought amid all the excitement and stimulus of scientific and medical achievement. The question is addressed in the exhibition by screens showing people asking a variety of ethical questions. Should a child, diagnosed as being in a Permanent Vegetative State after and accident, be fed intravenously indefinitely or should food and water be withdrawn? Should people with severe mental problems be forcibly medicated? These and similar problems are vividly and forcefully explored on screen where life-sized doctors, nurses, parents and lawyers give their views, and you are invited to make your choices and compare them with the views of others.
But the most dramatic exhibit in this section has to be the interactive hip-replacement operation – not for the squeamish! You are confronted on the large triple screen by the surgeon, the anaesthetist and the theatre nurse, who invite you to participate in the operation using the controls in front of you. This includes finding the right scalpel on the screen when the surgeon says ‘scalpel, please’, operating the scalpel to make the incision, and helping to hammer the ball-joint onto the bone to make a new joint. It is all alarmingly vivid and extremely popular. The whole operation is mercifully speeded up and takes about seven minutes, but it is a startling experience.
On the ground floor there is a splendid display of old steam engines. Alongside these engines are displayed photographs of the huge nineteenth-century factories that poured manufactured goods out to the whole world. The machines themselves are things of great beauty and complexity, often detailed with decorative ironwork. The display-boards by the machines give us technical information, tell us how they were used, and also add the human element by way of a statistic, a log-entry or an anecdote.
Alongside these machines are showcases showing the vast variety of manufactured goods that were made in the city – buttons, cutlery, swords, brasswork, engraved glass, tools, guns, watches, buckles, enamels, coins and medals, a moving tribute to the ingenuity and hard work, and sheer man- and woman-power and child labour which made Birmingham one of the major manufacturing cities of the world.
Communications and transport are entertainingly explored in an interactive challenge where you have to transport glass, steel and other goods from Birmingham to such destinations as Bristol, Liverpool, Hull and London.
As you leave, your eye is caught by what looks like a huge cage containing a pair of robotic ostriches. They are two large robots to demonstrate the role of robots in the assembly lines at the Jaguar factory in Coventry.
Thinkahead – the subject of this gallery is the application of present-day technology to future needs. The exhibits can be updated or renewed to keep abreast of advances in science. There is a film on the Jarvik 200 Heart Pump, showing how it has given new life and mobility to a man whose heart had deteriorated to a mere 10% of its capacity. A man who lost a hand and arm demonstrates what he can do with his artificial hand, which has computer-controlled sensors which ‘feel’ and can grip an object which is slipping just like a real hand. Here you can find out about growing human tissues, the creation of entirely new human organs, or look at a future where patients with implanted hearts or other parts of the body can be monitored from a screen in their local hospital. With voice-recognition technology your car will be controlled by spoken commands, your cooker turned on by speaking to it from the sitting-room! The development of robotic tools for keyhole surgery means that an operation could be performed and monitored from a screen in another room, another town, another country. There is a sensory fabric which will send out signals under pressure – objects or clothes made from the fabric can be used to send signals from disabled or handicapped people, or be used to detect pressure in hospital dressings or equipment. A tiny video camera can be swallowed like a pill to send out information as it progresses through the body. These are only some among many of the displays which describe the advances in science and technology that will affect us all in the coming century.
We live in a time when scientific and technological advances can seem quite bewildering and it is good to have a Museum of Science and Discovery where they are made intelligible and entertaining.
Thinktank is open daily 10am–5pm except Fridays.
Adults £6.50; Children £4.50 – Museum only
Adults £10.50; Children £7.50 – Museum and Imax cinema.
Anne Gardom is the Art Critic for New Directions.