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pounds 97m spent on `silly' revamp of museum

A DISPUTE has broken out over a new pounds 97m science centre in Bristol after its top scientific advisers branded the exhibits "puerile and silly" and "totally inappropriate to the spirit of science".

The criticisms are aimed at the Explore centre, being built in Bristol docks with pounds 41m of Lottery funding, which will open in March 2000. It will replace a centre called the Exploratory, which closes this week after nearly 20 years. In that time it has become world famous for its hands- on exhibits, attracting 200,000 visitors annually. The Exploratory's success formed the basis for Explore's Lottery funding bid.

Professor Richard Gregory, founder of the Exploratory and chairman of the scientific advisers for Explore, said the new exhibits, which include a virtual reality ride on a sperm from ejaculation to fertilisation, have "lost the spirit of the Exploratory".

He led six of the new centre's science advisers in delivering a stinging letter to Explore's managers. "Essentially we said that the exhibits were totally inappropriate to the spirit of science. We objected to the womb exhibit, and to another which purported to show what it was like to drive a car when drunk. It didn't, but why teach kids to do that anyway?"

But his criticism was dismissed by a spokeswoman for Explore, who said: "They are there to advise us, not to steer the total compilation of the exhibits. We have other people advising us on the communication of science and exhibit design." Gillian Thomas, the scheme's chief executive, added: "We are trying to have spectacular exhibits to get people in who have no interest in science at all."

The new centre is the core of a pounds 450m urban rejuvenation scheme at the heart of the city's Harbourside area.

But the protest has ignited opposition among scientists to the trend in the new centre towards exhibits using computer displays rather than the hands-on experiments of the Exploratory. The science journal Nature called the change a "scandal", saying the Explor-atory is "probably the leading example in Europe" of getting otherwise uninterested people to be receptive to science. Professor Berry added: "Many of the displays are no better than the computer encyclopaedias that many people will have at home now."

Other millennium-funded science projects have been accused of opting for visually impressive but scientifically dull themes, under the dual pressures of funding and time.