August 2011

The Singapore ArtScience Museum: a modern marvel of science, technology and art

New museum bridges art and science. 

Singapore's ArtScience Museum is shaped like a blossoming lotus or open palm. Photo credit William Cho.

Traditionally art museums and science museums segregate into mutually exclusive entities, with a separate building for each. Such a distinction may be convenient, but it overlooks the intimate relationships between the two endavors. Art can influence science, and similarly, developments in science and technology have catalyzed artistic innovation. The estrangement between science and art has, however, been reconciled at the ArtScience Museum at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. This new museum bridges the gap between the disciplines to focus on the great accomplishments and advances that were inspired collectively by science and art. The museum provides a magnificent display of art and science across multiple cultures and centuries.

The ArtScience Museum itself is an architectural masterpiece. The breathtaking structure designed by Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie not only is an artistic inspiration, but it also promotes environmental sustainability. Safdie's architecture exemplifies the museum's goal to unite art and science by providing an aesthetically pleasing structure that utilizes cutting-edge construction and design technologies. In his design, Safdie conducted his "search for rational geometry" by modeling 10 fingers into what could be interpreted either as an open palm or a lotus blossom. The structure of the museum often is referred to as the welcoming hand of Singapore. The fingers radiate out from the center of the building, increasing in size and height to generate four floors of gallery space. The tips of the fingers contain skylights to allow for natural exhibition lighting.

The structure of the museum also is functionally significant. The open palm of the lotus design channels rainwater 35 meters down toward a central atrium and into a waterfall that collects in a small reflection pool. The rainwater subsequently is recycled back into use for the building's plumbing system. As a further testament to the technological innovation of the design, the ArtScience Museum represents the first building in Singapore to be constructed from glass fiber-reinforced polymer – a material that is lightweight and extremely strong and versatile.

Once they have taken in the stunning exterior of the museum, visitors enter the building beneath a marquee that reads, "ArtScience: A Journey through Creativity." As an introduction to this journey, the first gallery, "Curiosity," asks visitors to question their surroundings. Spectators start by stepping onto a floating staircase that ascends into the gallery. Along the sides of the staircase are banners posing questions about art and science, such as "Are the artistic and scientific processes so different? What possibilities arise from the merging of the two?" The hope is to get visitors to reflect on the original nature of art and science and see how these two seemingly separate disciplines in fact have affected our world synergistically in many positive ways. As an example of the productive relationships between art and science, "Curiosity" displays the creative and scientific engineering thought processes of Safdie and colleagues in building the museum. On exhibit are his original sketches and design models as well as descriptions of the engineering research utilized during construction.

The second step in the journey is "Inspiration," a gallery focused on six pivotal works of art and science innovation. These works were selected to illustrate how art and science working in concert have affected humanity, sociology and technology across various cultures and centuries. The inventions on display include a replica of Leonardo's Flying Machine, an airborne paper Kongming lantern, a high-tech robotic fish, an architectural design model of the ArtScience Museum, a molecular model of buckminsterfullerene, and an ancient Chinese scroll. Interactive screens allow visitors to learn more about these objects and inventions. Visitors are encouraged to create their own art- and science-inspired projects, which they can then share as postcards that are produced at interactive kiosks.

The last step in the journey takes visitors to the tallest finger of the museum and into the "Expression" gallery. This gallery consists of a dynamic multimedia theater featuring a video presentation highlighting various accomplishments in art and science throughout history. Visitors learn about the artistic and creative processes that culminated in the development of scientific and technological innovations in architecture, flight, nanotechnology, robotics and navigation.

The "Van Gogh Alive" exhibit gives a multisensory exposure to the artist's work.

In addition to the permanent collection, the ArtScience Museum currently features several temporary exhibitions, including "Dali: Mind of a Genius" (through Oct. 30, 2011) and "Van Gogh Alive" (through Nov. 6, 2011). The Dali exhibit consists of more than 250 works of art encompassing a wide range of media, including paintings, sculptures, collages, photographs, gold and glassworks. Dali's art provides a view into the complex cognitive science behind his artistic creations. In contrast, the Van Gogh exhibit illustrates the interplay between the arts and science by providing visitors with a multisensory journey through the works of Vincent Van Gogh. Unlike conventional wall art displays, more than 3,000 Van Gogh images are projected across immense screens on the walls, ceiling and even the gallery floor. This visual experience is further amplified with a musical score to accompany the art. This pairing of Van Gogh's art with the latest audio-visual technologies culminates in a dynamic experience that embodies the philosophies of the museum.

The ArtScience Museum harmonizes the worlds of science and art in a spectacular collection of artwork and scientific innovation. As visitors walk through the permanent and temporary exhibits, they will appreciate how the unity of these two disciplines has affected various stages in the history of mankind. From early influences on ancient Chinese invention to Safdie's pioneering design of the museum itself, it is clear that art and science are symbiotically aligned.

Whether visitors seek to enjoy the exhibitions casually or intend to learn the specific scientific and engineering details of modern architecture, they will be in awe upon entering the ArtScience Museum. This unique space not only provides visitors with an educational adventure but also motivates and empowers them to find and nurture their own creativity and innovation in art and science. The manifestation of scientific and artistic curiosity, inspiration and expression in one museum certainly is a modern marvel worth visiting.

Lillian Kuo ( is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute.

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