I took a trip to Atmosphere this week. It’s the new climate change exhibition at the Science Museum in London.
Full view of Atmosphere - it's not huge, tucked away on the second floor of the Wellcome wing. Given all the publicity, I was a bit surprised how difficult it was to find.
Heaps of info on touch screen displays.
My first impression was that it’s amazing to look at. It’s a really nice space and not very busy, which makes it quite a relaxing experience.
The museum describes it as “immersive and interactive” and maybe that’s a bit of a problem: a quick walk round won’t really tell you much. You have to get to grips with all the touch screen consoles and work out how the (sometimes slow) exhibits work. Once you get into a particular info stream, though, there’s definately a lot you can find out.
They seem to have gone down the “just present the facts” line of thinking.
Where is everybody?
It’s a very different approach to their previous, pre-Copenhagen exhibition – “Prove It! – All the evidence you need to believe in climate change” – which was a bit of a disaster as you could vote on whether you would support a strong government contribution to the negotiations online and without looking at the evidence, which was the point of the exhibition. It inevitably got polljacked. Actually, the only place I could now find the results of the Prove It! poll was a screen grab on WUWT, the results were:
- in the gallery – 3408 “count me ins” to 626 “count me outs”;
- and online – 2650 “count me ins” to 7612 “count me outs”.
I think that this new gallery starts with the assumption that you already know about (and probably accept) the scientific consensus on climate change. Then, the role of the gallery is to show how the science got to this position and what can be done about it.
The big picture, climate-wise, is only presented as you first enter the gallery and even then its only audible – there are relaxing and/or authoritative voices saying things like “science can show us that greenhouse gases are increasing and why that makes global temperatures rise” and “science can show us how Earth’s climate system works and what can cause it to change”.
I found nothing as explicit in the exhibits themselves. I’m not sure about this approach – if you missed the recordings on the way in you might leave the gallery without really knowing what the point of it all was.
Alice Bell discusses the design of museum galleries more intelligently than I can in her review of Atmosphere.
However, I do partially disagree with Alice on one of her points:
Museums have objects and space to play with, and I left wishing they had done more with this.
Time spent quietly pondering the history of an object is an old-fashioned idea of a museum, but it still has power.
700 year old ice from Antarctica
I thought that there were a few things (only a few) that were well-chosen and inspiring in the exhibition that you could just look at and think about.
As an example, they have a section of an ice core that is around 700 years old. Antarctic ice has also been retrieved that is around 800,000 years old. These ice cores trap air and information about past temperatures that we can use to understand our climate system. How amazing is that? (Richard Alley wonderfully refers to a specific ice core a Two Mile Time Machine in the title of his book.)
This piece of ice predates almost everything else in the museum and it unknowingly kept a record of climate.
There’s also a little display on modern climate measurements. There’s an ARGO float that may have been deep (around 2 km) into the oceans to send us measurements. And a radiosonde (the little white plastic box that goes on the end of a weather balloon) that may have been 20 km up into the atmosphere to send back temperature, humidity, pressure and wind speed data.
Display on atmospheric measurements - I'm a big fan of the RS-80 radiosonde having launched quite a few of them in 2005.
So, overall, I enjoyed the exhibition and would recommend it. There’s a lot of information there and you’d probably need around an hour to start to do it justice. Like Alice, though, I do wish that there were more things there. I also wonder about the tone and who it is aimed at but, given their experience with Prove It!, I think that it’s a good comeback for the museum.