Five years ago, Jahnavi Phalkey had a tenured position at King’s College London, a published book, and a steadily advancing academic career. Then, she gave it all up to open a science gallery.
“I was on track, so to speak,” said Phalkey, Ph.D. HTST 2008. “I was doing fine until I shifted madly.”
In a moment she called “serendipity” in 2017, the science historian, teacher, author, filmmaker, and proud alumna of the School of History and Sociology accepted an appointment as the founding director of Science Gallery Bengaluru.
Phalkey came into the project with a vision to democratize access to knowledge in her country, expanding that dynamic edge where science, academia, research, and the public can meet. Building from the ground up — sometimes literally at their new building — Phalkey created the first public lab space in India, supporting research and public engagement in the natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, and the arts.
“We have the opportunity to imagine what a new kind of public space for science might look like, what a 21st-century public space for science might look like,” Phalkey said. “Maybe it's time to get the public back into the lab or get people who don't necessarily have the university qualifications of the kind we require of them back into the lab. Maybe it's time for us to reimagine our relationship to nature and the kind of questions we ask of it.”
‘A dignity to knowing’
Phalkey’s goal at the institution is to make knowledge more widely accessible, and most importantly, to give visitors an insight into the processes that produce knowledge. That means not just communicating scientific findings to the public like many museums do, but engaging them directly in the gallery’s research facilities. This is critical, Phalkey said, because the distance between research and the general public has grown so vast in recent years.
“There is a phrase that I'm increasingly using, and I'm more and more convinced of it,” said Phalkey, “‘There's a dignity to knowing.’ And when you deny someone the dignity of knowing, they feel small and incompetent. They are only the recipient of your claim rather than participating in it, and that can build resistance. So that’s why I believe that insight into knowledge processes is very, very important.”
Science Gallery Bengaluru, a member institution of the larger Science Gallery Network of university-affiliated centers in six countries (including one in Atlanta), launched its first public programming in 2019 and will open its physical space in 2022. Along with a more traditional exhibition center, Science Gallery Bengaluru will operate community organization spaces and five experimental spaces, funding 30 interdisciplinary fellows every year. Each fellow will also mentor an apprentice, sharing their skills with the next generation of Indian scholars.
At the exhibitions, Phalkey’s team breaks topics out of their silos for interdisciplinary investigation. For example, in a recent program on contagion, the gallery hosted public lectures with sociologists, epidemiologists, vaccine activists, and others on topics as varied as the contagious nature of laughter, computer viruses, and energy on the dance floor. “All of this to shed light on the selfsame object of inquiry, which is how, when, and why contagion spreads,” Phalkey said.
With this approach, people of any background or discipline can find an angle to crack open their understanding of a larger subject, Phalkey said, something she believes is not only valuable but “democratically necessary.”
“We live in a knowledge society where information is traded and monetized. So, if there are people who don't have access to knowledge, then you're effectively denying them the ability to become full members of your society,” she said. “You're denying them the ability to enter a public debate as a fully formed, fully realized citizen, and in a way, the ability to have any claim on how this society moves forward.”
The importance of perspective
Phalkey credits her Ph.D. in History and Sociology of Technology and Science (HSTS) at Georgia Tech for giving her this benefit of perspective, something she tries to replicate in her role at the gallery. Working and learning in a small cohort of students from around the world in her Ph.D. program taught her the importance of deconstructing topics back to the basics.
Class discussions with students from Korea, Finland, Peru, California, and Georgia would start with the same reading materials, Phalkey said, but because they were coming from such different backgrounds, “there were no unsaid things we could assume,” she continued. “All positions had to be argued for.”
Now, she’s paying that forward.
Fostering that powerful propensity in the public to ask questions and seek answers is an “open-ended exercise” at the science gallery, Phalkey said, and one she’s grateful to have the opportunity to take part in.
“To imagine something much larger than my own life, my own career, my own commitments … and to have the resources to realize that as an institution, I don't think I could have imagined that I would get to do something like this,” she said. “It’s a privilege, actually, and it's really humbling that anyone thought I could do this.”
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