The first time I went to a science museum was a couple of years ago. I vaguely remember seeing a couple of (uninspiring) exhibits and a superb documentary on space and time. Other than me, there was a busload of government school students. Quietly — and aimlessly — they moved from one exhibition room to another. The museum had no staff to explain to them the exhibits and the security staff seemed more than happy when the group left.
So when last month at the Euroscience Open Forum in Turin, Italy, I heard someone mention a session on 'Tackling social tension through science communication', I was intrigued: can science actually be used to solve problems among communities? On the face of it, what the speakers said at the session was simple: scientific research teaches us to question everything, even what is assumed to be true. If these principles of science can be inculcated in young adults, it will help them question dogmas and thereby lower the chances of future conflicts.
"Science museums are often seen as children's playground. But we see it as an opportunity to promote understanding between communities," said Maya Halevy, Director of Jerusalem-based Bloomfield Science Museum. "Jerusalem is place of competing ideologies: there are Jews, Arabs, Christians and ultra-orthodox Jews. And it is here that we are trying to use the principles of science to break the barriers that exist between these communities".
The idea that a public space can be used for something much bigger than its mandate came to the museum authorities while researching the profile of the visitors. They found out that certain groups never visited the museum because of various reasons: Arabs because of ethnic and language issues and Orthodox Jews for their own ideological dogmas. So to attract these communities, the museum is now kept open on Arab holidays, websites and leaflets are available both in Hebrew and Arabic. There are Arabic communicators also. After-school programmes for Jews and Arabs children together have been started.
Recently, a travelling exhibition called 'Peace Labyrinth' debuted here. It showcased conflicts, how they arise, and the ways they can be resolved. Labyrinth's format was relevant to the dilemmas and issues surrounding Israel and Jerusalem. The exhibition had two specific goals: first, to develop awareness of points of view, such as stereotypes, that influence us in conflict situations; second, to provide creative tools for managing interpersonal conflicts.
"There are many who believe that Arabs are uneducated. So if a young student comes to the museum and finds out a communicator in an Arabic dress, such myths would be demolished then and there," Halevy said.
This creative combination of public and institutional spaces such as museums and the principles of science are also being used by a students' group in Paris. After the 2005 racial riots in the 'disadvantaged areas' of the city, researchers and university students like Livio Riboli-Saso, a PhD student, set up the Paris-Montagne Charity to make science accessible to poor students. The organisation's programme targets high-school students interested in science but are not confident to enroll in under-graduate studies because of social and cultural barriers.
After five cities in France, the fledgling campaign started operations in the conflict-ridden Croatian city of Vukovar where Serb and Croat children still go to different schools. The children of these two communities were brought together to work on science puzzles and discussed the possible divergences in the collected data. "I learned that you need to get along even though you don't know the people," one of the participants wrote after the meet.
By the time the Turin conference got over, the discussion on whether there should be an 'Islamic centre' at the 9/11 Ground Zero had started. Though many are opposing it, maybe they should build one. Understanding is the key to peace — and in a strife-hit world, such creative/dual use of public spaces can become the game changers.
KumKum Dasgupta attended the Euroscience Open Forum as part of the Robert Bosch Stiftung Fellowship Programme.