Tuomas Olkku:

Daring to Try and Fail in the Science Gallery Dublin

TUOMAS OLKKU, DEVELOPMENT MANAGER, THE FINNISH SCIENCE CENTER HEUREKA

Background

After working for seven years as a development manager in Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre, I was delighted to be chosen to be part of the first round of Mobius exchange program.

My home base, Heureka, is one of the most popular leisure destinations in Helsinki area. Its mission is to present science and technology to wide audiences in fun, inspiring and engaging way. At the moment Heureka is going through a development phase, where it is getting its operations reshaped and tested before re-opening after the expansion in 2017. Heureka already has a lot of cooperation with external partners in all of its activities, but it is our strong intention that there will be many more partnerships in the future. My main area of expertise is corporate co‐operation, but I am interested in all activities, which link the museum to the surrounding society, such as co‐operation with universities, possible co‐operation with NGO’s and other interest groups as well as public engagement activities.

My host organization in Ireland was the Science Gallery Dublin. The Gallery is an innovative mixture of art and science and it has turned out to be hugely popular in Dublin. Besides being a pioneer in bringing arts and science into dialogue, the Science Gallery has an ambitious plan to build a network of eight science galleries around the world. Having done some concept development and being a museum geek and a marketing man in one person, I was very interested to see how an internationally scalable museum concept is developed and managed.

Dublin and the Science Gallery

The Science Gallery is a cutting edge exhibition space on Trinity College campus, in the heart of Dublin. Besides focusing on exhibitions, which infuse art with science, it also produces lots of events, big and small, to support its exhibitions and to go deeper into topic at hand. During my stay in Science Gallery I heard someone referring to it as “a cultural startup,” which in my opinion is good definition and still describes their attitude although the venue has existed since 2008.

It’s worth mentioning that besides exhibitions and events, Science Gallery also houses an excellent café which made it popular drop‐in place for campus crowd and other Dubliners passing by. They also had a small shop and a Makeshop, a maker space which was located in different location nearby.

Learning Points

I have documented my daily experiences during my stay in Dublin into a blog which can be found at https://mobiusexperience.wordpress.com/. In this essay, I aim to focus on a few learning points and explain them a little. They have to do with organizational culture and strategy more than daily activities. I hope this approach is fruitful for bringing new ideas to Finnish museum and/or cultural scene and thought provoking for colleagues in the museum field.

The remarkable ambition of the Science Gallery can be seen in the way they operate their daily activities and adapt new technologies. They had quite recently hosted an exhibition called “Fail Better.” The phrase was also widely used in their daily conversations. Fast experimentation is a core idea of lean thinking, which is popular in startup business world, but, at least to my understanding, still rare among cultural institutions. In this kind of thinking, willingness not only to experiment, but also to cultivate a culture of learning from errors is important. I witnessed cases, where the approach of fast experimentation was applied when for example new technologies were introduced to the Science Gallery exhibitions.

To provide a concrete example, in one case a teacher from south western Ireland, far from Dublin, wanted to know whether the Science Gallery would provide a remote tour to the exhibition with iPad and Skype. I attended the mediators’ meeting where the idea was introduced and it was received with great enthusiasm. The discussion quickly moved to thinking how the experience could be made as good as possible, rather than why it wouldn’t work. Needless to say, I was very impressed by this attitude! Technology was tested on the same week and I believe the remote tour was carried out as an experiment with the particular school class a bit later.

Another case introduced a remote presence technology called Douple for the 'Blood' exhibition. In this case also the idea energed quite late in the exhibition planning, but the decision to see the potential of the technology and to test it during the exhibition was made quickly and testing was put in practice without too much bureaucracy.

Ambition And Thinking Big

Having an ambitious mindset goes together with daring to experiment. One sign of the Science Gallery's ambition is their initiative to go global with the concept and establish other Science Galleries in eight locations by 2020. The Science Gallery has already acquired a remarkable seed funding from Google to realize their goal. They are still in the beginning of the path, having just opened their first location outside of Ireland in London, but from what I saw, they were very active and dedicated in their efforts.

Another ambitious project was the TEDxDublin conference, which the Science Gallery organized in September. I had an opportunity to be part of the organizing team and to see the process from inside. The event reached an audience of 2000 participants and was sold out well in advance. In my understanding it was one of the biggest TEDx events in Europe. The Science Gallery had organized TEDx conferences also before, so they had a clear idea of the project, but the process was still challenging, hectic and almost chaotic at times. When it took place the event was superb, with 12 excellent and well prepared speakers, but also a lot of additional activities from science‐related demonstrations to a participatory citizen science project and screen printing.

One might ask why a gallery would run such an event and how is it related to their core work? But if you take the audiences’ perspective rather than an organization-centric viewpoint you'll see that since the Science Gallery exists to promote science and technology to their target audience, it definitely should, besides hosting interesting and thought‐provoking exhibitions,also apply all the channels which are relevant to their audience. TED is a strong brand with a clear image and an ability to speak to the same audience, which Science Gallery aims for, so it makes sense for Science Gallery to produce an event under the TEDx brand. Impact is always a hard thing to measure, but in this case it can be estimated to have been remarkable. It’s worth mentioning that the Science Gallery organized smaller exhibition related events almost weekly, so bringing like‐minded people together is a core part of their operations. Relationship With Stakeholders

Another learning point of my fellowship was the networked approach of working. Realizing and appreciating the value of stakeholders is a key to success in todays interconnected world. The Science Gallery had a key stakeholder group; the Leonardos, who were key people from scientific society, but also from other walks of life. They had a kind of advisory role in terms of content and they were hoped to open doors and speak for the Science Gallery in their own networks. Sponsors had different categories, the Science Circle being highest. The companies in the Science Circle had made a commitment for five years and they were kept close and well informed of everything going on in the gallery.

The staff is an obvious stakeholder group. The Science Gallery had also realized an importance of former staff, especially the former mediators. The mediators are the floor staff who are constantly in contact with customers. In the Science Gallery, mediators typically were students from the Trinity College and only worked for couple of exhibitions before moving on to more demanding jobs. The Science Gallery had realized that already a few hundred people had mediated in their exhibitions and some of their former mediators had progressed to good positions in academic or business worlds. One of the projects I was involved in was planning of a mediator alumni network.

In terms of communication, the Science Gallery mostly applied social media channels, and they had dedicated followers of their Facebook and Twitter accounts. This was an obvious choice given their target audience of 15‐25 year olds. It was also a very cost efficient way of constantly staying in touch with their audience.

Strong Focus on Target Audience

In my personal opinion, the mistake museums and other cultural institutions often make is that they try to offer something for everyone. In doing so there is a risk of not really providing value for anyone. As I mentioned before, the Science Gallery had chosen 15‐25 year olds as their primary target group. All the choices in terms of exhibition content, events, branding and marketing were made with this primary target group in mind. It gave guidelines for decision making and also gave a right to make choices that could have been seen controversial by some other audience groups. Having a background in marketing, I was impressed to see this kind of thing happening in reality.

In fact they were even a bit worried of how to stay on pulse of target audience. When the Science Gallery started eight years ago, many staff members were part of the target audience themselves. Now most of the core team was around their thirties and in some meetings someone indicated that they no longer know what is on the mind of twenty‐year olds. I believe this is a challenge for many brands, whether commercial or cultural, who aim for young target groups.

One solution to this dilemma was the mediator program which the Science gallery ran. Mediators are part‐time staff that work in the exhibitions and actively interact and discuss the topic of exhibition with the audience. Mediators were integral part of exhibition experience. As I mentioned before, the Science Gallery is located on the Trinity College campus and it has very close ties with the university. It was easy to recruit mediators from students, as they offered a flexible and convenient way to work part‐time. I also sensed that science communication training provided to mediators was appreciated and valued by the students. For the Science Gallery, constantly recruiting and training new mediator staff meant a lot of work, but at the same time it gave them access to their target group's thinking. Motivation of the mediators to develop both themselves and the functions of the Science Gallery was also remarkable.

Conclusion

My experience in Ireland gave me many new ideas, some of which I have already implemented in my work back in Finland. Having been quite many years with my current employer, it was good to get a bit of distance to my daily work routines. I was very happy to have the Science Gallery as my host institution, because they had ambitious goals and such an enthusiastic team to execute their ideas. It was also good to stay for a bit longer period, because then I was able to better integrate into the team and also saw obstacles that may not be visible for someone visiting just for few days or few weeks. The way of working in the Science Gallery was efficient and they achieved a lot, but it was also very demanding for the personnel. Three months was quite a long time to be absent from Heureka. It took some arrangements and help from colleagues and there was a pile of work waiting when I returned. I also did some work for Heureka during my stay, especially towards end of the period. That way I was able to stay on top of things also at my home base.

To conclude, even if everyone is nowadays just a click away, we shouldn’t underestimate the value of personal face‐to‐face contacts. After working together for a while in same physical location, it’s much easier to work together also virtually. I can only strongly recommend this type of experience for museum and cultural professionals who are in the mid‐stage of their careers and want to develop their personal skills, knowledge and networks. Employer benefits from the exchange as well through the employee’s development, and from stronger international connections, which in the long run may turn into international project cooperation, better visitor experiences, and even new channels of funding.

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