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09.40  A Scientifically Astute Society for the Future: Heritage Perspectives in Indian Science Museums and Centres

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9:00, Dimanche 5 Juin 2016 (30 minutes)

The classical science and technology museums, including the likes of Deutsches Museum, Munich, or Science Museum, London, have been spaces to preserve and communicate the techno-scientific heritage of the nation. While the objects on display allude to past achievements, the takeaway idea for the visitors certainly includes that of the continuous technological prowess of that nation. In this paper however, I will depart from the traditional science museum premises to bring science centres under the purview of my study. I will argue that science centres which present interactive exhibits to facilitate science communication are institutions whose goal is to transcend science appreciation and move toward an interactive approach to science. By purporting to create a science conscious population for the present and future generations, these centres have transformed the museum space from one that privileges objects to that which places the dissemination of knowledge of scientific processes at the forefront. 

The first attempt at defining India’s scientific heritage was the establishment of Birla Industrial and Technological Museum in Calcutta in 1959, in the decade following India’s independence. As Saroj Ghose, erstwhile president of ICOM explained in a personal interview, the need was felt by the central government to preserve artifacts of historical significance to the newly formed nation. Soon however, the opening of the Exploratorium in 1969 in San Francisco challenged the existing science museum space. The Exploratorium model of hands-on approach to science communication strongly favoured science education and active participation in understanding science. As Ghose explained further, for a young country with its policies firmly grounded on the needs of it becoming self-sufficient, the choice of the model of science communication was an obvious one. The success of Exploratorium and the growing interest in developing indigenous technologies combined to create a major motivation for science museum professionals in India to propose this new institution as the preferred model of science communication, which resulted in the formation of the National Council of Science Museums (NCSM) in 1978. 

It has been discussed that a young country has a different understanding of engagement with history and therefore with heritage. It has its vision set for the future; and India with its median age of about 28 is a state interested in exploiting the demographic dividends that its vast young population offers. This paper will focus on the activities of the NCSM keeping this milieu in mind. But how will this potential be untapped in a country with equally confounding demographic problems? For this, the answer is to be sought in the Indian Constitution itself, which prescribes the cultivation of scientific temper as a fundamental duty of every citizen. The phrase that was inserted at the behest of top scientists, with the intention to challenge age-old, often illogical, beliefs, has been enshrined in the objectives of the NCSM. Scientific temper and scientific heritage could also be considered in a single continuum—the former in greater demand in a postcolonial country which is seeking to raise its profile internationally. The two projects of the council—training young people in cutting-edge technology at specially designed innovation hubs in the museums, and taking science at the doorsteps of the rural population through mobile science exhibitions—alongside the interviews carried out with top officials of NCSM, participant observation inside the museum space, and readings from the archives, will constitute the primary source materials for the main arguments. The aim is to support the theme of heritage futures by presenting a case study from an emerging nation and its scientific policies which define a positive image to the world.

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