An interview by Diana Fehr / Dec. 2021
Mikko Myllykoski is the CEO of Heureka, the Finnish science centre. He studied humanities at the University of Helsinki and started his career in the science center field in 1990 by innovating how interactive methods can be applied in social and cultural history exhibitions. He has published about history, museology and science engagement and served in positions of trust in science communication both nationally and internationally. Heureka’s exhibitions have reached an audience of 9 million people in Finland, and an additional global audience of 20 million visitors on tour in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia.
Diana: Heureka is a unique cultural and educational institution that belongs to Finland’s most popular leisure time destinations. How could you achieve this popularity and attract about 300.000 visitors per year?
Mikko: When Heureka was founded in the 1980s it was very carefully done and well timed. At the start of the first wave, three physicists from the University of Helsinki wanted to bring the idea of science centers from North America to Finland. They understood that this needed to be done for the general public, and therefore they tried out the idea with a series of five pilot exhibitions from 1982 till 1987. The science centre foundation was established on these positive experiences – and on the public demand that was understood.
The first element that caught the eye of public was the uncommon building, designed by two young architects, Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen, and of course the new, fresh idea of a science center. The museums in the late 80s were still, let’s say hibernating. They were still the old school museums, great institutions as collections, but without the “power to the people” approach of the science centers.
Furthermore, right from the beginning it was decided that Heureka should cover all the academic subjects, as they didn’t want to exclude humanities or social sciences. It also had to be a Finnish interpretation of the science center with its own production of exhibitions, diverse partnerships, which worked closely with the community around it. This made it into a very dynamic and renewing place and lead to its ongoing relevance and popularity.
Diana: But how does the pandemic affect your activities now and how are you able to still stay connected with your audience?
Mikko: We were lucky as we experienced only two relatively short lockdowns, three and five months. Nobody could visit us during these periods, and everything needed to be done digitally. We already had digital, actually quite humorous content-related marketing material. We converted our popular summer science camps into digital offerings, so that in the summer of 2020, almost 300 kids, not only from the Helsinki region, could participate online. Because of this popularity, in the summer 2021 we then had both versions, the physical and the online camp. We equipped a digital studio with science show props and tailored online visits for bothkindergartens and schools, which was pretty advanced. So, all of this took us definitely a digital step forward.
But in our last strategic update, we decided that we will not overemphasize the digital, as there is enough competition and enough offerings that are relevant. Our strength is still creating a physical learning environment which can be disseminated and expanded by digital elements.
Diana: Since September 2020 you are the new director of this Science Center. What is it that you are doing differently and how can you ensure a sustainable future for your institution?
Mikko: I don’t have to be a revolutionary, as the institution is solidly run. My priority is the sustainability of this institution, which has to have a sound basis. The strength that I bring is that I have been around since 1990. Therefore, I know the institution, the global science center movement, and most importantly, the people in there, inside out. I have been chairing the conference program committee of ASTC, which is mostly North American Association of Science and Technology Centers, as well as the conference program committee for Ecsite, which is the European network of science engagement.
My strength is that I seem to get more media presence than my predecessors as directors, and I try to use that for the benefit of the institution and our mission. The partnerships that will be built with my leadership might be partly novel as my networks include art, media and the human sciences. What I find important is that we must have a strong presence, as the work that we are doing is vital for the society.
Diana: Resilience is also the topic of your newest exhibition „Facing Disaster“. What message do you want to drive and how do you tell this story to your visitors?
Mikko: Facing Disaster is about societal resilience: how our societies should understand the need to grasp the concept of resilience. This means to be prepared and to try to prevent and avoid a disaster, to protect lives and livelihoods and survive – and build back better, if needed – a whole cycle. This is important and relevant, because of climate change and the increasing extreme weather we all face. Even Nordic countries, that have been pretty safe, are experiencing more fires and storms that are knocking down the trees on our electric lines.
In order to increase awareness, this exhibition is a learning environment for resilience, in combination with art. We hired Hungarian video mapping artist László Zsolt Bordos who worked with our design team, and created these spaces where you can experience an artistic expression of forces of nature that can build up to storms, earthquakes, fires and floods.
At the central area of the exhibition, we have games where you can try out collaboration and communication tasks and learn to build trust. We are not talking about catastrophes or disasters with a typical image of human suffering. We are, actually, artistically portraying the power of nature so that you can admire it, combined with the message that if we humans want to live with these forces of nature, we have to adapt and become more resilient than we have been so far. This is a new, optimistic and positive touch that we have designed in this exhibition.
Diana: You also have an interesting flagship funded project FOSTERING FINNISH SCIENCE CAPITAL where you try to broaden and deepen participation. Can you elaborate on this and why this topic is so important to you?
Mikko: I want to start with the concept of science capital. In the early 70s the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu developed the concept of social and cultural capital. This capital is like an individual property that we build throughout our lives. It’s not just about knowledge, but it’s about whom we know, how we use our time, and what we chat about with our friends. It’s like 360 degrees of understanding of a human being. And science capital is a sub version of social and cultural capital, the resources that an individual has about science. How important is it for us? Who do we trust? With whom do we talk about it? It’s important to understand that science capital is more than just knowledge. It’s about awareness, attitudes, values, and whom you know.
So what could Heureka as a science center do to foster an increase of science capital in Finland? This means that we should not just repeat what we are doing, creating another nice exhibition, and another science show. Maybe we should go to people and listen to them. What is your interest? What is your curiosity? What is your hobby? And then try to find science and research links to those activities, so that people who now stay out of the world of science could find it relevant and participate – and understand it better. With the help of science and scientific culture, they can enrich what they have learned, because: at the end of the day, everything in this world has linkages to science.
Diana: But how do you do this exactly, as this is very time consuming?
Mikko: Yes, you’re absolutely right, this will be time consuming and difficult. This is why we have started a six-year project, that just hit the one-year mark. Since we have a grant for that, it gives us some freedom to try out new methods and learn by doing, also by failing and making mistakes.
What we have done so far, together with a group of three universities and the network of science centers in Finland, is undergoing research in education, psychology, and neuroscience. We are looking at what role emotions play in learning, and what obstacles one might have in acquiring information, and to find out new ways of connecting and identifying the groups that are under-presented in our audience. For example, immigrants, and teenagers or young adults who are not getting higher or middle education. We want to reach out to these groups that are in danger of being marginalized.
Diana: Is this also why you think that cultural institutions need to take action towards building more equitable, relevant and impactful spaces?
Mikko: Yes, it is exactly about this point. To be a more democratic institution, to reach out to more people, and to be accountable for that, as we are getting public support from the city and from the ministry education. If we are just catering for the families that are educated and well-off, we are not really fulfilling our role in society. We should try harder!
Diana: Now to John Falk’s newest book is about “The Value of Museums“, where, based on his model of enhanced well-being, he explains how to measure this kind of value.
Heureka was one of the institutions in Falk’s pilot project, and now you have formed a group of eight Finnish cultural institutions that will work with him and the Institute for Learning Innovation to deepen this study. Can you tell us more about his new methodology, how you are going to work together, and about your expectations?
Mikko: John Falk and I go back a long way. I have appreciated his work for the last 25 years, and like many others, I value his contribution in understanding museum visits. He simply helped me to understand to pay attention to diverse visitor needs. I understood that I might do a more meaningful and relevant work, if I would take visitor needs seriously into account.
I was surprised when John came with his new book, because he always emphasized learning, and now he took the step away from learning towards enhanced well-being. But when I read his book, I totally agreed with him. When he proposes the message that you can actually measure the value in currency – in dollars or euros, I thought that we should try this out.
We definitely have different cultures in the US and in Europe. In Europe it is not easy to talk about money and culture in general terms, and we do not value one through the other. But money, after all, is a language we all speak. We all use money in the market economy, and I think that we should not overlook it as an instrument for measuring things, not even culture. The fact that we could create this consortium out of institutions ranging from contemporary art to cultural history and science, proved me that there is larger interest and need in presenting the value of museums.
The point is to demonstrate that if you invest in museums, you get an incredible reward, enhanced human well-being – and it can be defined also as a huge return on investment. As publicly financed institutions, museums should not shy away from this.
Diana: What vision do you still have for the future of Heureka science center and what steps are you still planning to take?
Mikko: Firstly, we should be even more strongly present in the Finnish society, but also internationally. Secondly, to do this, we will need to fight more for our visibility and get acknowledged for our work and impact for the society. And most importantly, we should continue to be a valuable resource that supports lifelong free-choice learning. This is a moving target in the changing society.
Diana: I wish you the best of luck with this and I would like to thank you for the insights you have given me.
Images: Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre
Thursday 23rd March - 4pm (CET)