Phase one of Science Gallery Bengaluru’s exhibition-season CONTAGION phase came to a close Sunday 13 June, 2021, with closing remarks by Rohini Nilekani.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sent alarm bells ringing throughout the world. While we have witnessed great socio-political and economic turbulence since the start of this pandemic, we’ve also seen a renewal of trust in science and experts.
This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s closing remarks during Phase one of Science Gallery Bengaluru’s exhibition-season CONTAGION on Sunday 13 June, 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic has sent alarm bells ringing throughout the world. While we have witnessed great socio-political and economic turbulence since the start of this pandemic, we’ve also seen a renewal of trust in science and experts.
Almost a year of social distancing and isolation has made us value our communities and public spaces. Not only do public spaces build a sense of identity and shared ownership of the city and its environs, they also become a hub for public discourse, engagement, and dialogue. Science Gallery Bengaluru is hopefully shaping into exactly one such public space in Bangalore, alongside the Bangalore International Centre, The Museum of Art and Photography, Ranga Shankara, and many others. Through their exhibitions and programmes, Science Gallery Bengaluru connects with the city, especially its youth, and invites them to make it their own space by crafting a vibrant cultural conversation on science. Bangalore is a leader in science, research and technology in the country, with institutions such as IISC, NAL, ISRO, DRDO, NCBS and with globally renowned scientists such as Nobel Laureate C. V. Raman, Satish Dhawan, Roddam Narasimha, Obaid Siddiqi, and many others who continued to work in our institutions and laboratories. But the mission of the Science Gallery is to take science beyond the hallowed gates and laboratories of these institutions, and out onto the streets, mingling with the citizens, instilling in them pride for the city and a curiosity about scientific research and experimentation, and its importance in our lives.
Science Gallery has a special focus on the young. As we have seen over the past one and a half years, the country’s youth have played a critical role in challenging the public health crisis that we are living through. They have come forward to help in very humanitarian and innovative ways, and as a society, it is our responsibility to invest in them and empower them to become active citizens of the future as well. Working with partners such as Azim Premji Field Institutes and the Agastya International Foundation, Science Gallery has created online learning resources for over 100,000 young people, and training programmes for youth working in underserved communities on COVID awareness. Additionally, during the CONTAGION exhibition, Science Gallery Bengaluru has trained its largest cohort of mediators to date. The mediators are young, enthusiastic people, who have had the opportunity to converse with visitors from across the globe through this exhibition, not just in English but also in Kannada, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and other languages. CONTAGION’s masterclasses, workshops, and tutorials have now become a global platform for young people to be mentored by experts across disciplines.
The pandemic has further exposed the gap between research and the public. There’s an urgent need for strong efforts to facilitate better public understanding and appreciation of science. Young people need to get excited about curiosity-driven science and scientific exploration that could create a better, more hopeful future. This can only occur through a democratic dialogue examining how research intersects with our lives. CONTAGION did exactly this and touches upon this through its exhibits like Ranjit Kandalgaonkar’s ‘Drawing the Bombay Plague’ and Christos Lynteris’s ‘Controlling the Plague in British India.’ They provided a subtle yet sharp commentary on the dissonance between scientific research, the formulation of policy, and its subsequent implementation and impact on society.
The programmes at CONTAGION further highlighted this dissonance and an expert panel of a virologist, a physician, an epidemiologist, and a rural and tribal public health practitioner, led by the immunologist Ajit Lalvani, unpacked this fraught relationship between scientific evidence and the ground realities of pandemic control measures, especially in India today. CONTAGION invites us to think differently, open our minds, and ask critical questions of the world around us. The exhibition also asks us to reflect upon rapid scientific and technological progress to see that nobody is left behind, offering an inclusive vision of the future. We are witnessing the cracks caused by widespread structural inequities in vaccine development and distribution, which Achal Prabhala spoke about in his lecture, and we find a heart-rending experience because of skewed access to healthcare in Basse Sttitgen’s exhibit, ‘Fluid Dialogues’ and T Jayashree’s film, ‘A Human Question.’
Adia Benton spoke of the politics of care in a global health system that is becoming increasingly militarised. How do we make our way out of this? How do we begin to re-imagine the health sciences to integrate human, animal and planetary health. The frameworks of One Health are one way forward and were explored by Uma Ramakrishnan and Michael Bresalier’s talks in the CONTAGION’s Public Lecture series. CONTAGION, as several participants and visitors have said, is timely and relevant, it provides a historical, conceptual and ethnographic context for the pandemic and the pandemics to come. It has shed light and allowed people to be equipped with knowledge and feel empowered when they see that such experiences have happened to people before and that humanity has within us the wherewithal to confront what is in front of us and to prevent what may come in the future.
Science Gallery Bengaluru has chosen to explore transmission as a phenomenon, rather than focus only on disease. By looking at the spread of ideas, emotions, and behaviour, the entire programme provided us with some relief from the relentless and somewhat terrifying news around us, by helping us to put pieces together and take a longer and broader view. Given the difficulty of assessing and filtering vast amounts of information in the public domain i.e. the ‘infodemic,’ Science Gallery Bengaluru also provided a platform for young people to ask questions and engage with leading experts, like Gagandeep Kang and Shahid Jameel. With the generous consent of the artists and scholars that are exhibiting, the exhibition season will remain live with monthly programming until 31st December 2021. Given the crisis that we are continuing to live through, it is vital that CONTAGION remains freely accessible as a public resource and the team will continue to add new resources and new programmes.