Our Dynamic Earth is “an amazing adventure” and “an interactive journey” which they keep in a big tent around the back of the Scottish parliament. This part of the city seems fresh and spacious and faintly eerie. Members of the public can air themselves like lizards on the steps of the pristine amphitheatre which decorates the entrance to Our Dynamic Earth, or they can plant themselves beside one of those inch-deep artificial lakes outside the parliament, nurturing a cappuccino, perhaps munching on a panini, gazing around blankly and reflecting upon how they came to be abandoned in this empty futuristic cityscape.
“Welcome citizen of utopia!,” Our Dynamic Earth seems to proclaim, “come inside our cool tent and feed your twenty-first century mind with science.” Actually, Dynamic Earth has particularly assumed the remit of making science “fun, exciting and engaging” for children, which implicitly concedes that it isn’t really and hence that it needs Dynamic Earth to volunteer as an advertising agency on its behalf. Oceanography is not interesting in itself; it needs to be made interesting by this interactive corporate presentation. But good luck to them! – there is no need to be unkind – I hope that they brainwash thousands of schoolchildren with a wonder for science, producing a raring new generation of engineers and revolutionary inventers.
I am here to see a piece of the moon. Fortunately, I have already professed my complete disinterest in Dynamic Earth to the young man on the door, and he has confided that the NASA lunar sample is being displayed as part of a separate show for children, and that they would surely let me have a little peep at it, even though I do not have a ticket for the main Dynamic Earth tour. I should point out that this does not appear to be strictly allowed – the lunar sample is solely “Open to all Dynamic Earth ticket holders” – but if you want a handy Tourist Review tip, it is pretty easy to bluff your way in the direction of the moon rock.
The lunar sample is being displayed in a little gazebo, the fun baby brother of the important big tent. The girl on this door insinuates that I should really know better – the astronaut challenge is meant for children – and I resist the temptation to explain that children are extremely stupid and that all of this is wasted on them. But the moon rock is waiting over there, and I can just go and look at it if I want. So I cut through the crap and get straight to the lunar sample.
But is this it? I had imagined that it would be put on show like the Arc of the Covenant, reposing on a gold plinth behind lasers and bulletproof glass, resplendently lit and protected by a team of NASA elite bodyguards. But there is instead a bunch of rocks lying on a table, each with a postcard attached to explain what they are.
I am pointed towards the moon rock, which is not actually a rock but six samples of soil and grit that are each labelled and together embedded within an acrylic disk. The disk must be a health-and-safety requirement – without it, these bits of moon grit would be in danger of getting trapped under your fingernails. I suddenly fear that I have missed whatever it is that I am meant to feel – my feet are still on the ground – my heart is clopping along at the same tempo. Indeed, somebody wandering into the exhibition in ignorance would surely pick up this disk and put it down again and not give it a second glance.
Along with the disk are several curiously light and metallic knobs of rock, which turn out to be meteorites, and some other stones which hail from Mars. There is an activity in which a meteorite has been jumbled up in a bucket of indigenous rocks, and you have to determine which one is the meteorite (it turns out that only the meteorite is magnetic.)
I am dumbfounded and I turn helplessly to the attendant. How much does the lunar sample cost? To her own amazement, she realises that she does not know, but she tells me that the sample is very valuable and that they must keep an eye on it. I imagine that if I picked up the sample and walked out of the tent with it, they would not know what to do. The lunar sample is marked with an issue number, and I later learn that NASA has a pool of hundreds of samples which they dish out to schools and museums.
I ask myself what I was expecting. Nobody would flourish their arms and scream in my face, “Marvel mortal! This came from the moon! From another world!” I would be shown a number of rocks in display cases and I would have to accept the premise that they came from space. Beyond this, it is unclear how one should properly go about exhibiting a moon rock.
But the arrangement at Dynamic Earth nevertheless seems strangely heartless. We are not told the precise circumstances in which humanity obtained these lunar samples, nor the story of how these particular meteorites came to journey through space and crash through the atmosphere and end up on a table in Edinburgh. In the eyes of science, these are purely rocks. They are specific rocks with certain properties, such as their magnetic force, which one can readily observe, but they ultimately remain rocks. One needs imagination and storytelling to give these rocks back their true mysterious aura.
I am not sure that I want my moon rock to be turned into an interactive toy, and the Dynamic Earth exhibition leaves one with a dispirited and oddly empty feeling. In a moment of candour, the attendant gushes that this is one of the few chances that I will have to experience a lunar sample, as nobody in the Western world will be visiting the moon during my lifetime. “Err, China?” I say stupidly. “That’s why I said the Western world,” the assistant laughs impatiently. It seems unfortunate to let this slip at the end of an exhibition which asks, “Do you have what it takes to become an astronaut?” As the self-appointed champion of science, Dynamic Earth should surely tell its young visitors that they can and should aspire to one day voyage to the moon, and that when they get there, they should do more than bring home a few scrapings of grit.
[Tychy previously reviewed The Queen: Art & Image, which is still showing on the Mound. Ed.]