Miraikan, or the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (日本科学未来館) is my new favourite Japanese museum. I work at a science and industry museum which tries to make Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM) subjects attractive, so I was curious to see how Japan, as a tech country, presents the latest in scientific research. I was blown away by how good it was at Miraikan. So much so that I happily agreed to give a short presentation on my visit to an all staff meeting at work!
Miraikan is located on Odaiba, the artificial group of islands in Tokyo Bay accessed across the Rainbow Bridge. We caught the Yurikamome from Shinbashi, which was very busy because we went on the Sunday during this year’s Golden Week, getting off at Fune no Kagakukan and walking the short distance to Miraikan.
The ticket office is outside the main building, in its own little row of booths. We bought our tickets that gave us access to the main exhibits but not to any special exhibits, and then we joined the throngs of families.
I think this is what excited me most about the place – the sheer number of families that were there, and the way they were completely involved in the exhibits. The first zone we went to was Tsunagari, where current research into our own environment on Earth is presented interactively. It was rammed, but more importantly everything worked.
In this zone, GEO-COSMOS (the big globe) is used to demonstrate what is going on with the Earth’s climate based on data from research scientists and the public, and GEO-SCOPE (the banks of interactive screens) is used to deliver additional research content on different aspects of the environment, such as bee migration, movement of tectonic plates and the effects of deforestation. Other interactives are used to gather data, such as the interactive where you could have a picture of your face taken and compared with the faces of other visitors to the museum.
Around the same area are more traditional displays with interpretation panels that begin with a question, what is this?, and move through an explanation to a panel giving examples of research carried out in the area under discussion and a quote from an expert in the field.
Milling around the exhibition floor are volunteer staff who spend time with visitors, often on a one-to-one basis, to explain the exhibits in more detail. Some of these volunteers are young people who want to break into the world of science interpretation. A volunteer position can lead to an internship which in turn can lead to employment within the science world, often through links with businesses and organisations who are Miraikan’s partners. It’s a very forward thinking way of doing things.
One of the volunteer science communicators at Miraikan is ASIMO. ASIMO does demonstrations twice a day, and we were lucky enough to get there in time to see his afternoon slot.
The show was entirely in Japanese but is aimed at children so if you have a decent grasp of the language, say to GCSE level, you stand a good chance of understanding what’s going on. The show that we saw looked at how robots can make life easier for humans, and how they help us around the house. ASIMO demonstrated his footballing skills with the help of one boy from the audience, and then led the rest of us in a Tai Chi session. ASIMO and the other robots on display in the museum is the result of research partnerships with universities and businesses, which is what Miraikan is all about – facilitating research for practical purposes and disseminating the results to the public.
ASIMO is part of the Create Your Future zone on the third floor. Here we also saw a working model of the internet, which used coloured balls to demonstrate the way binary messages are sent across the web. The model was demonstrated by one of the science communicators and again was surrounded by people while the demonstration was going on.
The other thing that interested me was the level of information that was being presented in the exhibits. There was some really high level stuff that in the UK wouldn’t get into the final interpretation because it would be seen as being too difficult to explain. I think that this is part of the problem we have with attracting people to take up science – it’s not just the way it is presented in schools, it’s the way public institutions strip away how relevant science and maths is to everyday life, dumbing down interpretation and so removing the challenge and excitement of the different science subjects. One of the exhibits we saw at Miraikan was about mathematical modelling, and how maths can be used to help us to understand and manage the climate, and to discover new chemical compounds to help fight disease. The zone was presented as a superhero challenge that visitors were encouraged to help out with. It was brilliant. Too busy for me to take many photos, but these are shots of the introductory panels.
Continuing the research theme, on the same floor as the Create Your Future zone are two research laboratories where children can learn different skills. On the day we were there, there was a session on how to make a robot. You have to book in advance, and there were a couple of disappointed children who wanted to take part but whose parents hadn’t made a booking.
On the fifth floor is the Explore The Frontiers zone, where our whole environment, from the biology of our bodies to the geology of our planet and the physics of the universe are explored. There was a lot going on in this zone. I had a look at the section on how scientists are learning about how the planet’s tectonic plates interact and beginning to be able to predict when an earthquake might strike. For Japan, this is very significant research and the display was very interesting.
A busy exhibit was the International Space Station capsule, for which a queue snaked along the side. The people waiting were assisted by volunteers who had put together a display of information for visitors to look at as they awaited their turn inside the capsule. THe volunteers also walked along the queue answering questions.
At the end of our visit, we went to the shop which was stocked with all sorts of science kits, very well integrated with what was on display in the exhibits.
Outside the shop is an area where visitors can relax beneath the GEO-COSMOS globe.
I am completely in love with Miraikan. I admire the Japanese government’s determination to take science seriously, to support an initiative like this and make it easy for universities and companies to work together to ensure that Japan’s economy benefits from the technological advances made in the research world. I wish that the government in the UK took STEM as seriously, instead of paying lip service to it as they have in the recent past.
I’d encourage anyone with even the vaguest interest in science, or even no interest in STEM subjects at all, to visit Miraikan. Those of you already engaged with science will be rewarded by the experience, and those of you without any interest might be pleasantly surprised at how accessible science can be.