Article - Issue 61, December 2014

Great exhibitions

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng

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Great works have extraordinary power to capture the public imagination. In November, the magnificent and moving installation of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, attracted more than four million visitors, which is over four people for everyone of the British and Commonwealth deaths in World War I. Earlier in the summer, over 550,000 visitors saw Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at Tate Modern, the venue’s most popular exhibition ever. Last year, Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum received over 470,000 visitors, nearly twice its original target.

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng

Even in today’s busy world, there is clearly public appetite for great exhibitions. In the continuing quest to promote the value of engineers and engineering, is it possible to attract the crowds with grand displays of engineering and technology?

In 1851, the original Great Exhibition attracted over six million people in just six months, over twice the population of London at the time, and equivalent to around a quarter of the population of the country. Today, despite the seemingly insatiable demand for technological products and even the relative popularity of engineering trade fairs, it is much more challenging to find the‘wow’ factor for exhibitions that promote engineering to the public.

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s vision, ‘to put engineering at the heart of society’, has provided an important sense of direction for most of the past decade. Under this banner, great new initiatives such as the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering have been launched by the Academy, and public engagement activity and schools programmes have multiplied. With keen media interest in every contact between the public and engineering – think of energy, transportation, ‘smart’ technologies, flood resilience, cyber-security – it is easy to argue that engineering is already at the heart of society.

So where next? Is it possible to position the role of engineers in society as enablers of a better future? Would that capture the public imagination? It could if the wider world of engineering came together and communicated the message more effectively.

The Academy report, Thinking like an engineer, published in May 2014, identified six engineering ‘habits of mind’ – systems thinking, adapting, problem-finding, creative problem-solving, visualising and improving– that it recommended as the basis of engineering curricula throughout the education system, from primary schools to degree courses. The problem is particularly acute at primary level, where the report finds that, “the primary school system almost extinguishes any opportunities for [young children] to flourish as engineers”.

In a bold initiative to stimulate public interest in engineering, the Science Museum will open an exciting new exhibition, Engineer Your Future.

Supported by the Academy along with leading engineering companies and the government’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, the project, which opens on 17 December, will run for three years as part of the Your Life campaign, which aims to increase the number of young people choosing a career in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Engineer Your Future will be a long way from the models of railway locomotives in glass cases, with buttons that you pushed to make the wheels go round, that I remember when visiting the Science Museum as a boy. This new exhibition is designed to inspire everyone – young people in particular – to rediscover ‘the engineer inside’ through activities like gaming and social learning. There will be online careers information and games, artefacts that demonstrate the real impact that engineering has on our quality of life and real stories of engineers and engineering in film and television, sport, food production, transport, energy and other essential activities.

The idea is to demonstrate to the public that the ways in which they solve problems are not only fun, but engineering thinking. If this exhibition helps young people realise that the way they think opens new career possibilities, that would be areal achievement. Could this new style of exhibition achieve a breakthrough in raising public awareness about engineering? Will Engineer Your Future be the great exhibition for 2015? Put it in your diary. And remember to take with you as many people as possible. And the younger the better. Go early, go often.

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