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Reopened Miraikan back to the future

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Miraikan is back — and in the context of post-March 11 Japan, public expectations for the museum, whose mission is to bring cutting-edge science and technology closer to the public, are greater than ever.

Miraikan (the National Museum for Emerging Science and Innovation) reopened Saturday after a three-month closure. The popular museum, located in Tokyo’s Odaiba waterfront district, had to close in the aftermath of the March 11 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, because the tremor caused plaster boards, which covered the ceiling inside the glass-walled, six-story atrium of the building, to come off and shatter into pieces on the ground floor — despite the fact the building’s design had met government anti-quake regulations. (All visitors and staff were evacuated safely out of the building before the ceiling collapsed.)

The incident was a humbling lesson on the fragility of human inventions and technologies — just as the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster have been. But the museum staff quickly adapted and turned the event into an exhibit.

In the weeks following the disaster, some of the museum’s 40 “science communicators” uploaded a series of picture-laden essays on the museum’s website, explaining what exactly happened to the ceiling, and how, instead of merely fixing the broken plaster boards, the museum decided to replace the ceiling covering with a thin, lightweight sheet made of a coated glass-fiber textile — similar to the one used in the ceiling cover of the Tokyo Dome stadium. The idea is, the staff explained, that instead of trying to make the ceiling quake-resistant, the museum should brace for the “unexpected,” and thus should design the ceiling to inflict as little damage to people as possible in case it collapses again.

“Our primary job is to explain exhibits to visitors on the floor, and we found we suddenly had nothing to do during the museum’s temporary closure,” recalled Yuko Okayama, one of Miraikan’s science communicators. “But we soon realized we have an important job to fulfill, with or without a museum building.”

In the days following March 11, fears of radiation contamination also grew, and the public’s need to make sense of the often-complicated technical updates from the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. surged. Miraikan’s science communicators quickly took up the challenge and started posting messages on Twitter, showing people where they could find reliable information. They also solicited questions from the public — on such subjects as the mechanism of nuclear power reactors and the effects of radiation on human health — and wrote answers on the museum’s website, after posing the questions to specialists, Okayama said.

All of these activities are perfectly in line with the new direction for the museum, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of its opening this year.

“Science and technology always create room for ‘unexpected’ situations,” Mamoru Mori, a former astronaut and Miraikan’s CEO, said at the June 3 preview of the museum’s new “Tsunagari”‘ (meaning “Interconnection”) project. “That’s because we can only imagine science within the scope of what we already know. But we must propose ways to prepare for the unexpected.”

Through the project, Miraikan is putting “connectivity” to the fore — as many of the scientific issues facing us today cannot be resolved without the cross-disciplinary cooperation of experts, institutions and government agencies and people all around the world.

To facilitate such connections, the museum has unveiled three new exhibits.

One of them is the upgraded “Geo-Cosmos” on the third floor, a giant, globe-like display that uses high-resolution Organic LED screens, considered the successor to the common LED versions currently used around the world. Mori explained, as he lit up the display on June 3, that the new type of LED is 10 times clearer than the previous kind.

Glowing beautifully in the darkness, the Geo-Cosmos, which is 6 meters in diameter — about one-two-millionth the size of the actual Earth — looks very much like the image we are so used to of our planet as seen from space. On its screens, content acquired from scientists and research institutes from around the world is displayed. During the preview, one of the videos shown explained how tsunami waves spread from Tohoku to the rest of the world within minutes of the March 11 earthquake.

The second new exhibit is “Geo-Scope,” which has 13 table-mounted touchscreens, on which visitors can access various Earth-observation data. The content includes seasonal changes in ecology, climate change and the predicted future-image of the Earth. Visitors can mix and choose various different data to display, which can result in interesting discoveries. For example, by combining the data of bluefin tuna migration and ocean temperatures, you can tell that the fish travels in parts of the ocean with seawater temperatures of around 15 degrees centigrade.

The third new feature of the Tsunagari project, called “Geo-Palette,” is actually online. At geopalette.jp/, anyone can draw from various world statistics — from cancer rates to uranium reserves to newspaper circulation figures — to create their own map. Notably, the museum has opted to go with the AuthaGraph world map, instead of the conventional two-dimensional world map that uses the Mercator projection — which distorts the size of the areas closest to the North and South poles dramatically. AuthaGraph, however, invented by architect Hajime Narukawa, is able to frame all land and sea in a rectangle while maintaining area ratios correctly. Users of this interface can also change the center of the map freely, and can interact with other users by making their maps public.

Hopefully the reinvigorated museum will be a source of inspiration for future scientists and help raise the scientific literacy of all its visitors and users.

“Great science and technology will be indispensable in rebuilding the Tohoku region hit by the earthquake,” chemist Ryoji Noyori, a 2001 Nobel Prize laureate, said at the preview. “Of course it is the scientists and engineers who shoulder the task firsthand, but it is the responsibility of society overall to choose and manage such technologies appropriately. In that sense, it is ultimately important for all citizens to have a certain level of understanding of science and technology.”

For more information on the “Tsunagari” project visit www.miraikan.jst.go.jp/en/