Current Issue #488

Building a Hoverboard Skateramp at UniSA's Museum of Discovery

Building a Hoverboard Skateramp at UniSA's Museum of Discovery

Budgerigars, robots, and shark-bamboozling surfboards: South Australians will soon be able to peek into the future via MOD, a museum of discovery.

The University of South Australia’s ‘ambitious’ new project will join the science precinct on North Terrace, and share a building with the Centre for Cancer Biology, the Innovation and Collaboration Centre, and more. MOD will be a museum dedicated to showcasing “the edge of knowledge”, explains director Dr Kristin Alford.

“Museums are not the stuffy old beasts they used to be,” says Alford. “I think we’re trying to be really quite audacious, unexpected and a little bit ridiculous.”

The museum will not have a collection – there’ll be no rotating series of objects and artefacts. If MOD collects anything, says Alford, it’s ideas. And some of the ideas are wacky.

The University of Queensland, for example, is studying budgerigars – how their visual and spatial perception allows them to fly through narrow parts of a forest – to inform drone and aircraft safety research. MOD’s first exhibition, MOD.IFY, will include racing visitors down a corridor and comparing them with budgerigars. After the race, guests will be able to use an app to design and hatch their very own genetically modified holographic bird.

The exhibitions become more fantastic as Alford lists them all. There’ll be an artificial intelligence gallery, for tackling what it means to be human. Another space will draw on Macquarie University research into how to fool sharks so surfers no longer look like tasty snacks. And, of course, MOD is looking to build a hoverboard skate ramp.

Locals with fond memories of the Investigator Science Centre will understand the giddy sense of wonder that MOD hopes to recapture. However, MOD will differ from its ‘predecessor’ in many crucial ways. First, MOD is aimed at a slightly older audience – people aged 15 to 22. Second, instead of explaining historically significant theories and inventions, MOD will focus on the future and the creative application of research.

Ten years ago, Alford points out, if a science centre wanted to explore a budgie’s sight, there would have been an eye diagram printed on a wall, alongside a detailed, technical explanation. MOD, however, wants to provide experiences and questions: you feel what it’s like to be a budgie, and then, if you want more information, you’ll know what to search for in Google.

Dr Kristin Alford wants the MOD to be “audacious, unexpected and a little bit ridiculous.”

“The Investigator Science Centre was designed in the early 1990s at a time when we were watching towards 2000. We’d just got our Walkmans and Y2K was just about the scariest thing,” says Alford. “Then we started to appreciate Chernobyl, which had only happened a few years earlier, and then we started to think about genetically modified food, and then people started to worry about a whole lot of unintended consequences of technology.”

And it’s here that MOD finds its place, in the wake of mechanisation and automation, in a reality that accepts ‘alternative facts’ and distrusts science. Alford believes the “post truth” problem is not a science problem, but a social or leadership issue. MOD hopes to encourage young adults to explore scientific ideas, to become the leaders that we lack. But Alford acknowledges this thinking is difficult and can be disheartening.

“We know that rural areas have really suffered from changes in the agriculture industry, for instance, and we know that the outer-suburban areas where factories were based are really suffering with the move to automation and offshore production. There isn’t a way to say to somebody, ‘Well, this is how it’s going to get better’. No one’s really imagining that,” says Alford.

“At the moment, we’re not very optimistic, and people don’t feel as though they have a lot of agency. The only way we challenge the underlying fear is by offering future possibilities and personal agency for people to change their own futures.”

By gathering examples of the world’s most fascinating new discoveries and innovations, and by highlighting links between art, science, sociology and technology, MOD hopes to inspire young people to think about grand ideas and complex problems.

“We’re designing for big, bold experiences and bigger questions,” says Alford. “Our overwhelming message is that there are ways to navigate the future.”

MOD will open in May 2018.

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