Tanks for all the fish

Charlotte Carey posted on her blog that it was cheaper (with a Railcard, admittedly) to go to the science museum in London than to Brum’s Thinktank and how it was, as someone has even bothered to write on Wikipedia, quite upsetting seeing as the old science museum was free. That’s certainly something I’ve heard before, and actually said without thinking myself, but what’s the reasoning behind it?

My limited understanding was that museums owned by the local government were legislated to be free entry, but there was something about Thinktank that made it not a museum. And if, as is easily surmised, it was the extra “interactive” stuff was that worth the £8.50?

This isn’t quite the case, Thinktank isn’t owned by the city council but by “Thinktank Trust” which means that it isn’t legislated to be free to the public – it does however receive an annual grant of £2 million from Birmingham City Council to cover a portion of its day to day costs. Some of the exhibits are on loan from the BM&AG collection – semi-permanent loan it would seem as there’s no Science Museum to give them back to. Apart from the council grant the Thinktank has to pay its own way – and there are certainly high costs in running such an advanced exhibition.

The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons met in July, to discuss the funding and situation of Science and Discovery Centres like the Thinktank and it seems that some of these elsewhere in the country are struggling. It was interesting to see the distinction between these centres and museums – that museums are “primarily collection based” where the centres are “primarily interactive”.

Interactivity is certainly more use in today’s learning than the old fashioned look-but-don’t-touch museum experience – my two favourite things about the old museums were “interactive”, pressing a button to make the train move, and pressing a button to make the dinosaur roar. It’s great that such there’s such a modern learning experience on our doorstep, the ‘operation’ interactive (doing a hip replacement? can’t remember) is phenomenal, the planetarium is fantastic, and the outreach and educational work is well respected. But somehow it’s a little unsatisfying – as a adult anyway.

What grates a little – especially with us old enough to remember the old museums – is the fact that some of our industrial heritage is behind a paid ‘locked door’. The history of science is to a certain extent the history of Birmingham – and that belongs to us all. It is a shame to go down to the museum collection in the Thinktank and not see it teaming with excited children the way that the interactives are, but there’s only so much that exhibits (rather than enthused teaching) can do to bring social history to life. Thinktank doesn’t do itself any favours in this respect by billing itself “Birmingham’s museum of science” and “Birmingham Science Museum” – no wonder people expect it to be free.

Today’s science doesn’t seem to be about the past, so it seems incongruous to have the two together. An ideal solution to my mind would be to somehow divide the place up, and make the ‘museum’ bit free – free to grandparents to drag their descendants round spilling memories and bringing past to life.

How much extra that would cost the council a year, and what agreements they’d have to break to to do it, I don’t know – but bringing back the giant T-Rex would be best of all.

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