Tuesday July 8, 2003
Parents who might question the educational value of their children watching Frodo and company battle the forces of evil in the new Lord of the Rings blockbuster this Christmas might think again, thanks to the launch of a new exhibition on the science behind the film at the National Science Museum.
The attraction, based on the Hollywood portrayal of Tolkien’s celebrated trilogy, is just the latest attempt by the museum to “sex-up” science and make it relevant to a new generation of young people disillusioned with science in school, by engaging them with contemporary topics which they can more easily relate to.
Jon Tucker, the head of the museum, is keen to use The Lord of the Rings to broaden the appeal of science. “A lot of children and adults instinctively think that science is boring and not for them. What we hope to do with exhibitions such as this is to jolt that misperception and show people that science is relevant and interesting; that it matters to their futures and can be made fun.”
The exhibition, to open in mid-September before the release of the final instalment of the film trilogy, will feature 654 real artefacts from the film, including prosthetic models of some of the main characters. It aims to explain the technology behind the special effects through a series of animatronics, mechanical demonstrations and interactive computer displays.
Visitors will be given the chance to become Hobbit-sized in a scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, thanks to a scaling interactive that makes use of a new software programme called Massive – designed especially for the film’s production. The exhibition will also feature original armour and costumes that were used in the filming of the multimillion-pound project.
Organisers also plan to show the new film, The Return of the King, in the museum’s IMAX cinema to strengthen the appeal of the exhibit and attract even more fans to visit.
Mr Tucker, who once played Gollum in a high school production, is convinced that the exhibition will boost the interest of all people in science, young and old alike and add to the museum’s 2.7 million annual visitors.
“What we try and do with every new exhibition is to encourage a new audience into the museum and with The Lord of the Rings we’ve got a golden opportunity to make science accessible and relevant to a whole new group of people,” he said.
“Once we get them in to see the exhibition they’ve got free entry to the rest of the site so the chances are people will take a look at the rest of what The Science Museum has to offer. We’ve got a quarter of a mile of floor space and five floors and this exhibition is just 3% of it, so the chances are they will find other things on display that interest them.
“All our research shows that once people visit an exhibition, many of them stay and have a look around, and we’ve got much to offer them. For example we’ve got the real-life Stevenson’s Rocket on display.”
The Lord of the Rings exhibition is not the Science Museum’s first attempt to repackage science for young cinema-goers. The museum has also played host to a James Bond exhibition, as well as producing Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition, where it successfully combined screening the film with an exhibition that took visitors on a chronological journey from the ship’s design and construction to its eventual discovery and salvage. The exhibit is still open and displays over 200 artefacts recovered from the wreck, including a three-tonne section of the hull and the original ship’s bell.
But Mr Tucker is keen to dispel accusations of dumbing down. “We totally refute that suggestion – we’re not dumbing down, we’re just making science more accessible and more relevant. I’ve seen some brilliant primary school teachers demonstrating the theory of relativity to really young kids using tennis and golf balls – they’re not dumbing down they’re just making it more accessible and more fun so that kids can engage with it.”
The museum points out that in its visitor feedback research for the Titanic exhibition 96% gave a positive satisfaction rating and commended the museum for the absence of “irreverent gimmicks”, indicating that it was a suitably “adult” experience.
Peter Cotgreave, the director of Save British Science, a pressure group which publicises issues of scientific policy, supports the efforts of the Science Museum, which is the only European venue for a worldwide tour of the Tolkien exhibition,
“It’s very difficult for people in the world of science, all of whom are by definition adults, to really know what young people are interested in these days. If you can get them interested by hooking science on topics that interest them and then get them to engage them with the rest of what science has to offer then that is a wholly good thing.”
He also points to the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs as a prime example of broadening the popular appeal of science, saying: “That was the only programme for a long time which has knocked EastEnders and Coronation Street off the top of the ratings and it did so by successfully making science appeal to a wider audience.”
In May the education secretary, Charles Clarke, mooted the idea of involving museums such as the Science Museum in the management and running of secondary schools.