So the Amsterdam adventure continued over the weekend, my hosts introduced me to the idea of a burendag – neighbours day – which in this case asked local families to help with the upkeep of a local playground. So there was weeding, planting, cleaning and a lot of chatting along with eating and drinking. Very enjoyable volunteering! It’s the type of event I would have missed had I been staying in a hotel. And word got out that I was someone interested in museums – so much so that one of the older generation who now spends his days browsing a local market, decided to give me a book about Van Gogh which was really touching. A day devoted to getting to know your community is a lovely idea, especially in these big cities where the pace of life can mean that you rarely slow down enough to see who is around you.
Then we tried a visit to the Dolhuys in Haarlem – an old mental institution turned into a museum of psychiatry. Originally this was outside the city walls so anyone not fitting into normal society could be sent out, locked up and essentially ignored. And there was the isolation room to try out which was fairly terrifying as a woman described her experiences in just one night (I couldn’t have done one hour). We saw various items that had been touted as cures in the past and quotes from some very famous Dutch around their struggles with mental health. It was a fantastic opportunity to open up important conversations around mental health, too often something that remains taboo especially for kids.
Today I visited Micropia – part of Artis which is the zoo here in Amsterdam. The Director had an ambition to make the invisible, visible. It took 12 years and a lot of work, but the team made an amazing experience. The live exhibits are seen in large flasks or under microscopes which create beautiful images on screens. There are some interactive experiences, links to real research, applications and a real lab where you can meet some of those ‘keepers’ who work with the microbes. And if you collect microbe stamps on your way round, you can release them at the end onto a wall of screens and watch them swim off.
It all got me thinking around the theme of invisibility. Whether its the microbes all over us and our world, the struggles with mental health that so many of us have or the people on our street who we don’t stop to talk to. Great science is about taking notice, looking closer, being interested in the way everything works – and that means paying more attention to the seemingly invisible. And of course for all of us science museums and science centres, it means taking more notice of our audiences and asking ourselves questions about why we’re not seeing some people or why others don’t visit very often and what we can do to help them (not how we squish science knowledge into their heads) in their lives. That all important empathy.
NB I also went to the Van Gogh museum, but it didn’t feel that special so I’m not going to add anything further about that.