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New landmark opens door to interactive world of science

Sat, 17th Oct 2009
The sleek, curved form that has appeared recently on the waterfront opposite the Macao Cultural Centre brings something refreshingly different to Macao. (October 2009)

The Macao Science Centre, due to open later this year, will feature 14 exhibition galleries, a convention and exhibition centre and a state-of-art planetarium – all designed to give visitors an entertaining yet educational journey into the fascinating world of science.

Built at a cost of around HK$800 million and covering 20,000 square metres, the centre is particularly focused on young people, and at stimulating their interest in natural sciences. 

Twelve permanent galleries and two temporary galleries are located throughout the spiral-shaped cone, featuring a range of displays covering fields such as earth science, the environment, meteorology, the human body, robotics, and astronomy and space travel. There will also be one gallery dedicated to educating visitors on the historical role Macao has played in the development of scientific knowledge and current research being undertaken here in the territory.

Renowned architect I. M. Pei turns dream into reality 

In his 2002 policy address, Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau Wah first put forward the idea to build a ‘youth technology museum’, to help students broaden their horizons. The project to develop the idea was passed to the Macao Foundation which proposed that a science centre would allow more flexibility in providing young people with interactive galleries featuring multiple content.

The Macao Foundation is a government funded institute established to promote educational, cultural, social and economic research and activities in the special administrative region, receiving its funding largely from gaming tax revenues.

Determined to ensure that the centre would be a world-class facility both inside and out, the foundation commissioned internationally renowned architect Ieoh Ming Pei to come up with the striking design that has taken shape over the past few months. Born in Guangzhou, Ieoh Ming Pei is responsible for some of the most famous and recognisable building designs in the world, including the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, and the Pyramide du Louvre in Paris. 

Construction on the Macao site began in October 2006 and about a year later the work started in earnest to seek out the latest and most innovative ideas for the interactive galleries inside the centre.

From Hong Kong to Macao: Yip Chee Kuen is the man in charge 

Charged with developing the content of the galleries was Yip Chee Kuen, Chief Curator of the Macao Science Centre.

“Macao has a small population and we want visitors to come back often, so we had to make sure that they had some good reason to come more often”, says Yip, who was previously chief curator of the Hong Kong Science Museum.

Yip travelled the world visiting international science exhibitions in search of the latest and most innovative gallery ideas. And he also did his research on the ground in Macao.

“I made visits to a number of institutions and educational groups and science related groups, to discuss with them what they expected and needed from the science centre”, he notes. 

Ultimately the galleries that will be on show to visitors are the product of cooperation between a number of international experts in their fields. A Chinese-Japanese joint venture company was selected to work on the space science exhibit, a Dutch company has provided the expertise behind the environmental sciences display, and the concept for the interactive ‘fun science’ galleries for young children was purchased directly from a science gallery in France. The rest of the galleries have been designed by Yip and his in-house team of locals.

Galleries for all tastes include the Chinese Aerospace programme 

The 12 permanent galleries can be roughly divided into four major themes.

The first theme focuses on young people with activities designed for children as young as three to seven years old. Fun is the name of the game here and students can expect to be introduced to science in a very different way from what they might be used to at school.

“We are not the education system, we are a supplement”, stresses Yip. “We are all about arousing interest from a young age”.

The next group of exhibits will introduce topics related to the earth sciences including meteorology and eco-conservation. Here the emphasis is two-fold: both on living in harmony with nature, but also learning to respect its power. 

“One thing we hope to do here is to give people a better understanding of how natural disasters occur, so if they are ever faced with being in a situation, they might have a better chance of survival”, says the curator.

From surviving a natural disaster to simple things to help improve your everyday life, the focus of the exhibits then turns to the human body and in particular sport and food. Two galleries entitled Sports Health and Sports. Challenge will not only educate visitors on the value of doing sports for a healthy body, but will also give them a chance to test their sporting skills over a range of interactive displays. The food science exhibit then offers a better understanding of the importance of a balanced diet, and watching the level of calories and fats we eat.

“As issues like obesity are gaining more recognition worldwide, sport and diet are fundamental to our health no matter whether we are young or old”, says Yip. “So we believe it is very important to include a gallery with this focus”.

The final gallery theme takes visitors on an exciting journey into space and the future with an exhibit devoted to China’s recent achievements in space travel and their plans to reach the moon. 

“This gallery will have a special emphasis on Chinese aerospace technology and show how the Chinese space program is linked to our understanding of the Earth. And because China is now planning on going to the moon, we will have an exhibit to show people what they can do and what they can expect if they go to the moon“, says Yip.

Journey to the stars like an astronaut 

After enjoying all that the space science exhibit has to offer, it’s likely that visitors will have whet their appetites for some space exploration of their own, and located just next to the main exhibition building is a structure that is guaranteed to give them the closest thing to becoming a real astronaut.

The 140-seat Planetarium features a tilted semi-dome screen nearly 15 metres in diameter, supported by high-resolution 3D digital projectors.

A planetarium differs from an observatory in that it is more than just a telescope looking at the sky, but in fact a purpose built theatre for showing the motion of planets, stars, galaxies and other celestial objects. 

“In recent years the digital technology has become more and more advanced, and you can do much more than with just an optical projector”, Yip explains. “A skilled operator can take you anywhere in the galaxy instantly”.

The huge database of cosmic information is capable of providing live, real-time shows of the solar system, and for even more excitement, the pre-programmed shows offer a range of Hollywood-style animations.

Macao’s place in science as the meeting bridge of East and West 

While the nature of all the sciences is universal, the Chief Curator of the Macao Science Centre also wanted to have a more local focus, providing some insights into Macao’s contributions to science, both historically and today. He thus decided to include a special exhibit to do just this.

Yip points out that historically Macao was one of the first meeting points between the East and West, and as such, it acted as a critical channel, not just for trade, but also knowledge.

“Many of the Jesuits who came to Macao had a great knowledge of science and astronomy and they took this knowledge with them to mainland China and influenced the development of science there. Macao played a very important role in this, as it is where they came first and where they learnt the language and customs”, explains Yip.

He also notes that the Portuguese brought with them advanced technologies from the West, which was set up in Macao, and much of the written knowledge of these technologies was translated in Macao before being taken to China.

Furthermore, the flow of information through Macao was not just one way. Chinese documents were also translated and sent back to Europe. Yip provides an interesting example, which is particularly significant this year, the 200th anniversary of Sir Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his publication On the Origin of Species.

“If you go over all of Darwin’s writing, you will find that some of his writing has a close connection with a particular Chinese book relating to Chinese medicine”, offers Yip. “Definitely Darwin had a chance to read the English version of this book, and consider the information, and this in turn influenced some of his thinking regarding evolution”.

To present the role Macao plays in scientific development today, Yip has asked local universities to submit research that they are currently involved in that might be of public interest. He has even let the public vote on which research projects they would like to see displayed at the centre.

“I think local people should know what research is being done here. What we can do is to provide a bridge between the researchers and the public”.

Macao Science Centre aims to stimulate interest of the youth 

The Chief Curator of the Macao Science Centre acknowledges that the interest in science in Macao is not great and that there is a tendency, especially for tertiary students, to study in fields such as hospitality, tourism and business, areas that are more likely to earn them higher salaries.

All the more important then, that the Macao Science Centre achieves its goal of stimulating young people’s interest in science.

“Science affects all our daily lives but it is getting more and more complicated, and in recent years there has been a declining interest in studying it, not just in Macao, but across the world”, admits Yip. “But science can change the wealth of a nation, and technology and business are closely linked”.

Macao Science Centre hopes to attract 300,000 visitors in its first year 

While the centre has undoubtedly been designed with an emphasis on fostering a local interest in science, given Macao’s position as a tourist city there is certainly a hope that it will attract a number of visitors from other countries also.

Yip readily acknowledges that this has been problematic for other centres around the world, but is optimistic.

“In general, science centres don’t attract tourists, because people feel that while art and history may differ, ‘your science is the same as my science’”, he explains.

“However we have some advantages in that we will feature some new technologies and have more advanced displays, so we hope we can get even just a small percentage of the tourists who come to Macao”.

Overall, the centre aims to attract around 300,000 visitors in its first year, and by frequently updating its two temporary displays, hopes to see many local students coming at least twice a year.

The admission fee has not been announced yet, but Yip assures that it will be comparable to the Macao Museum and the Hong Kong Science Museum. 

The centre will also employ around 80 local staff and a ‘soft opening’ is planned for later this year.

Yip is confident that this exciting new facility will play a crucial role in the development of scientific research and industry in Macao, and that by providing stimulating, interactive exhibits, the youth of Macao will attain a greater interest in the complex yet vital studies of science.

“Science is often influenced by individuals, not big groups or global ideas”, he states. “We need to get a lot of people interested in science and then hopefully a few of them will have a special talent for it”.

 

By Mark Philips in Macao

(Issue N. 1, October 2009)