The International Symposium of Science Museums

“Mamma mia, here I go again
My my, how can I resist you
Mamma mia, does it show again
My my, just how much I’ve missed you…”

To ABBA’s surprise, I’m sure, as well as mine, their song “Mamma Mia” will always remind me of my September trip to South Korea. Yes, you read that correctly. The disco classic was sung by an all-girls pop group during a special banquet honoring the participants, organizers, and VIPs involved in the 2012 International Symposium of Science Museums in Busan. This entertainment offering was a most unexpected conference experience, especially while jet lagged.

I had arrived late the previous night after a 14+ hour flight from Washington, D.C., to Seoul, a four-hour layover, and then another flight to Busan, the country’s second largest city on the southern coast. Thanks to melatonin and a comfortable hotel bed, I managed to sleep normal hours, and awoke to the morning sunshine feeling relatively energetic. So I took a nice long stroll along neighboring Haeundae beach, a popular spot with Korean vacationers during the summer.

Courtesy of ISSM.

I felt very fortunate to be among a small group of mostly European and American museum professionals invited to speak at the symposium. At the Bexco convention center we were led through a large meeting room to our name-tagged seats at the front tables and provided with headsets for simultaneous Korean-English translations. I imagined this must be a taste of what it is like to attend United Nations meetings.

Official welcomes included remarks by Hang Sik Park, president of the National Science Museum of Korea, which was hosting the conference. Then we heard an interesting keynote address by Sarah George, the director of Utah’s Natural History Museum. After that, we beheld another surprising performance—a musical theater piece by a Korean group called Vollklang Solisten about the connections between Western classical music and Pythagorean math. I cannot begin to describe it adequately here.

Photo by Ellen Wetmore.

During the first session I was one of five panelists discussing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education at science museums and informal learning organizations. It is a strange experience to speak to about 200 people listening to translations, so they would nod, smile, or chuckle in response to things I said about a minute after I said them. I shared stories about a broad range of Lemelson Center projects supporting STEAM education and 21st Century Skills. Overall, even in my jet lagged haze, I think my presentation went well and audience members posed some thoughtful questions during the Q&A section at the end of the session.

That evening the presenters were bused to Nurimaru, a spaceship-like building in Dongbaek Park, for the aforementioned banquet hosted by the Federation of Busan Science and Technology. The event began with individual introductions of Korean VIPs who stood and bowed. Then each of the invited foreign speakers were also introduced in Korean, so we had to listen carefully for our names, then stand and bow too. After that there were several official speeches in Korean for which we received English translation handouts.

Courtesy of ISSM.

We savored a delicious, seven course, very continental-style dinner accompanied by Bordeaux wine. I was seated with, among others, YP Kim, the director of the Busan Aquarium, which we had a chance to visit the following day. Mr. Kim is from Seoul originally but has lived in both the U.S. and Canada and actually did some translation work at the Smithsonian around 1982. My tablemates were interesting to converse with despite my hitting a wall around 8:30 p.m. and barely being able to think straight.

Now back to my reference about the night’s entertainment. The pop quintet danced about the stage playing traditional Korean instruments while singing ABBA with an electronic beat pounding in the background. My Swedish colleague Ann Follin, director of the Tekniska Museet (National Museum of Science and Technology) in Stockholm, was even more surprised than I. We shared a good chuckle about the experience two days later when we traveled via train to Daejeon with a Korean colleague, Hannah Lee, of 4D Frame.

The ABBA Performance.

In Daejeon, Ann, Hannah, and I enjoyed visiting the National Science Museum where we met up with Min-Jung Kim, who I had worked with when she was a visiting professional at the Smithsonian last year. Min-Jung and her associate Suk Yeong Lee gave us a wonderful tour of the Museum’s complex of buildings with exhibits covering the history, present, and future of Korean science and technology. I took lots of photos to show my colleagues.

National Science Museum's Discovery Center.

Thanks to Ann, I was invited to join her meeting at nearby KAIST, the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology. We spoke with research assistant professor Namyoung Heo and senior researcher Young Ju Lee about KAIST’s new Center for Entrepreneurship as well as their Global Institute for Talented Education. The meeting content was right up my proverbial alley professionally, as Ann had surmised, and she and I had lots to talk about afterwards as we taxied back to the train station and then traveled on to Seoul.

Monica and Min-Jung Kim. Photo by Ann Follin.

It was a whirlwind business trip, with three days of international travel for four days in South Korea. My heartfelt thanks to the organizers of the International Symposium of Science Museums, my fellow presenters, and all of the people who hosted me in Busan and Seoul. It is an experience I will never forget.

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