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Saroj Ghose: The man who built Kolkata’s Science City

Ahead of the National Science Day, meet Saroj Ghose, museum-maker for science nerds

Saroj Ghose. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Saroj Ghose. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What does it take to popularize science? Presenting a TV series to explain the cosmological theories of the universe, like American astronomer Carl Sagan did in the 1980s? Copiously writing sci-fi books for the general public like Isaac Asimov? Or, perhaps, conceiving a path-breaking science centre, which museum curator Saroj Ghose did in 1997 in Kolkata? Denizens of the city will easily recall that one memorable field trip to Science City from school which helped kindle their first intuitions of the natural world—from lifelike models of Jurassic-age dinosaurs to hands-on physics exhibits and immersive sky shows.

Trained as an electronics control engineer in India and the US, Ghose, 81, quietly awakened the eager nerd in us by developing a chain of interactive science centres when he served as the director general of the National Council of Science Museums from 1979-97. Winner of the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, he is the only Asian who has been president of the International Council of Museums twice. In October, he curated the Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum Complex, which employs high-tech digital surfaces, holographic projections, animatronics and other kinds of interactive media.

As Science City enters its 20th year, Ghose would now like to see a “Dream Science Centre", an outline of which exists in one of his research papers, Science Museum, Science Centre, Science City, What Next? This, he envisions, will be a step ahead of Science City—with the emphasis on “imagination", futuristic exhibits on things to come. The timing couldn’t be better. India celebrates National Science Day on 28 February, an appropriate moment to talk to the octogenarian museum-maker. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

Discussions on museums tend to focus on the arts at the cost of adequate reference to crucial scientific work. Why is that?

The history of museums tells us how the royal treasures and collections of feudal lords gradually turned into public museums in Europe. Scientific instruments and industrial collections were like “ugly ducklings", with metal structures that were hardly charming to the eyes but were awe-inspiring, nonetheless. These ugly ducklings were transformed into beautiful swans when the how and why of science was explained through public participation in science centres. Visitors realized that the real beauty of scientific collections lay in capturing minds even if they are not visually charming. Such science centres are becoming big crowd-pullers in modern times, competing with popular art and archaeology museums.

Science City, Kolkata, is 20 years old. Is it your most important project?

Of all the science centres, small or big, Kolkata Science City definitely turned out to be a high-level visibility project. Some places like Bhavnagar or Ranchi have set up small science centres but the local people fondly call these science cities. The real success of the first science city is demonstrated by this public conviction that the country needs many more such facilities. Personally, I feel gratified when, even after 20 years, I am approached for setting up giant science cities in other parts of the country.

In 1979, the International Year of the Child, you turned a municipal garbage ground in Mumbai into the world’s first science park. In 1985, this became the Nehru Science Centre, considered the largest interactive science centre in India. Was there any takeaway from this experience that you applied later to Science City, Kolkata?

The first thing I learnt in Mumbai is that a century-old garbage dumping ground is probably one of the best places for setting up a city science centre. We prefer to set up new science centres in central places easily connected by public conveyance, but who would give us 11 acres in the vicinity of Shivsagar Estate in Worli if it was not untouchable garbage land? Construction was not a major problem but the transformation of a stinky, repulsive site into a beautiful garden of Eden with a green landscape, flowers, birds and butterflies was a challenge that required a different kind of sensitivity.

The second thing I learnt is that a science centre will be far more engaging if it’s attached to a larger open-air exhibit area. This required a new brand of outdoor exhibits sturdy enough to withstand inclement weather and the rough handling of visitors. Moreover, the exhibits have to merge with the green landscape. The third thing we learnt was a clear understanding of the spirit of hands-on exhibits.

A shot of the digital panorama sequence at Science City (top); a session in progress at Science City.

You’re credited with introducing the concept of a high-tech storytelling museum in India. What was the inspiration?

On my retirement 20 years ago, my attention turned to history museums which, unfortunately, have been very traditional in approach, with 2D visuals hung on the wall and artefacts encased in glass cabinets. I thought I could increase visitor participation in history museums by using the tools we use in modern science centres. I had before me the examples of recent storytelling museums set up in Mount Vernon, Virginia and Springfield, Illinois. My first experiment was in a limited space in the Town Hall of Kolkata in 2002, but a more mature high-tech storytelling museum on our democratic heritage was developed in Parliament in 2006. The recent museum in the Rashtrapati Bhavan complex is much larger in size and more comprehensive.

Digital tools can bridge large gaps in collections, provide contextual information and form a well-knit story around individual artefacts. Multiscreen panoramic projection can create immersive visualization, giving a feeling that the visitors are standing in the midst of an event surrounding them. Virtual reality can take visitors to a historic past, breaking the barriers of time and space. Animatronics, with computer-controlled pneumatic/hydraulic movements, can present historic personalities in real-life situations. With additional mechanical simulations, 3D projection is enhanced to 6D or 9D illusions. History museums, in a good storytelling format, can even exceed the excitement of a science centre.

Three Nobel laureates recently said the anti-science culture is growing rapidly. What role can Indian science museums play to filter out populist scientific narratives?

Some of the populist narratives may be solidly scientific. Some may appear to be unrealistic today but may turn out to be a scientific reality tomorrow. Even if it does not, science fiction and fantasy have their own place in the public mind. Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley can kindle the imagination. Aesop’s Fables, the Panchatantra stories, Alice In Wonderland, all fail the test of scientific realism, but are useful in stimulating young minds… Science museums do not impose a top-down approach because the line of demarcation between hard-core science and fantasy is sometimes very fine or blurred or even shifting.

Which are some of the most important international science museums that are doing a commendable job of presenting contemporary science?

Interactive science centres all over the world are engaged in contemporary science. Two examples can be mentioned here. Sometime back, the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey regularly organized live demonstrations of heart bypass surgery which was carried out in the operation theatre of the Morristown Medical Center, and the Science Centre in Baltimore directly connected its visitors to the International Space Station in orbit. Still unbelievable in Indian science centres.

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