Category Archives: sciencemuseum

Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.

The mysterious colour blue

walking into the atmosphere gallery
I have a piece on the Guardian’s Notes and Theories science blog today on the Science Museum’s new gallery on climate science, Atmosphere.

As with the whole of the Wellcome Wing it sits within, Atmosphere is very blue. There isn’t a huge amount more I can say about the place, but here are some photos from my phone while I was visiting. I do think the gallery is exceedingly pretty, but I did leave feeling none the wiser (note: by “wiser” I mean I left without new questions to ask, as well as without new answers).

back wall of wellcome wing
That Atmosphere provided more of an aesthetic experience than an education one isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe one of the ways in which museums work is by being slightly abstractly and beautifully inspiring, to encourage to you go away and learn more elsewhere, or simply reflect on what you already know. That said, I didn’t feel all that inspired either. Maybe I’m not the target audience.

In the Guardian post I posed some of the questions I think the museum must have faced in developing this gallery:

Should museums aim to teach their audiences, or offer space for self-directed learning and debate?

Should publicly funded science communication avoid taking sides on controversial topics, or work as advocates for a scientific view?

Should climate science present a united front to the public, or reflect diversity and uncertainties within the scientific community?

I could probably also add: “Should museums provide largely written content, or simply connect you to books/ websites elsewhere and concentrate on making use of space and objects?” I don’t have any definitive answers to these questions, but maybe you have a opinion on them?

ceiling of atmosphere gallery

entrance of atmosphere gallery

Engaging audiences: rethinking “difference”

Steam power

I’m blogging from the Co-Curation and the Public History of Science & Technology conference at the Science Museum (picture is of an exhibit)

Saturday’s programme started with a “provocation” (or keynote talk) entitled “New Ways to engage people” from Andrew Pekarik of the Smithsonian’s Office of Policy and Analysis.

Pekarik is an exceedingly smooth speaker. He rolled off lines about the need to not only “see difference” in audiences but also “be that difference”: to embody such difference within the curatiorial team. To “See it, be it, and then use it too”. To use this difference in content, but also use it in determining display. Moreover, they need to follow this all up by testing the difference. That such testing should be about checking a team’s work, but also a way to identify new differences. As Pekarik concluded, this should become a continual cycle; one that is more important than any step individually.

All lovely sounding stuff, but what do we mean by “difference” here? What of the many possible differences are they looking for?

Answer: between “people people”, “object people” and those who are more “ideas people”. Pekarik noted most curators aren’t really “people people”, they are drawn to the job precisely because they like books and objects, and talked enthusiastically about a process of bringing in “people people” from other areas of the museum. For me, such a categorisation of “people, object or ideas” “people” didn’t ring true. Moreover, it seemed like a distraction from more important differences (class, ethnicity, gender, age).

A couple of senior Science Museum staff picked up on this in questions. One suggested that these three categories are just a 1st step which ends with 2.7 million forms of difference (i.e. as in 2.7 unique visitors). Another flagged up the difference between those who like hands-on experiences at museum. She also raised concern over Pekarik’s starting point of asking people about their most meaningful museum experience. What about people who never have museum experiences? How do you capture those who don’t already like you?

We didn’t have time for my question, but I wanted to ask whether he was still worried about class, race, age, gender, etc. Would he, for example, think about putting children in a curatorial board? I don’t necessarily mean to argue that we should categorise difference in such a way. Indeed, we might argue that limiting ourselves through these sorts of (equally reductive?) audience categories. Maybe another way of conceiving of diversity of audience is useful. It’s also worth underlining points several people made on twitter: however we choose to think about difference, identity (a) is always fluid and multiplicitous and (b) can be changed by the experience of visiting a museum (indeed, people might go to museums to be changed).

I’m sure that interesting work has come out of Pekarik’s sense of difference, and I love his point about the need to consider this as an ongoing process. Still, I worried that it’s a bit too abstract, a bit too devoid of social context (though maybe he’d say I’m just being too much of a “people person”…). Personally, I felt more comfortable with the notion of “community curation” discussed later by Karen Fort from the National Museum of the American Indian. I suspect this sort of approach captures the social and cultural diversity museums I’m worrying about and, in the process, will probably end up covering the differences Pekarik was playing with too. Similarly,  we heard about some very open and exploratory ways of involving audiences today – Denver Community Museum, Wellcome’s Things and London ReCut – I suspect there are all sorts of “differences” captured by these too. Also relevant, I think, was Nina Simon’s challenge to think about how a busy museum could, in a web2.0 sense, help make a museum better (not just break exhibits). Projects like these seemed like genuine attempts to involve more viewpoints than just those already held by a museum. In contrast, Pekarik seemed to be working from a point of view where the museum retained the power to frame and articulate its audiences.

Maybe he’s right to though. Maybe we want museums to talk to their idea of us rather than integrate audiences in the very fabric of their production. Maybe I’m just stuck in the 1980s with a focus on Big Social Issues like class. Or, maybe when it comes to communication projects, we need to think about what we have in common rather than what sets us apart; areas of similarity, not difference. (Maybe that’s just another distraction).

ADDED 25/10. At the end of the final day, Elizabeth Anionwu from the Dana Centre’s African-Caribbean Focus Group argued she shouldn’t have to be there: the  museum shouldn’t have to go to a special focus group for that sort of perspective, it should it be part of conversations happening already. It should be woven into the infrastructure of the museum.

I couldn’t agree more. I heard the line “but the Science Museum is this great big oil tanker of an institution, it takes ages to change” three times over the course of the weekend. I also heard complaints that I heard 10 years ago when I first started working there. And complaints about problems from the 80s I only learnt about in my history of science degree. It’s time to decommission that bloody oil tanker. The museum is, at least in part, its staff. The crowdsourced grass-roots innovative bottom-up change people were banging on about at the conference applies within the institution too. Don’t like it? Do something.

My favourite scientist

I’m not really someone who does “favourites”. When people ask my favourite colour, favourite t-shirt, or favourite food I tend to roll my eyes and point out that I’m not seven. But I do have a favourite scientist. His name is Frank Oppenheimer.

This is a bit embarrassing because, as a trained historian of science, I really should be above a “great man” view of our past. I know science doesn’t progress genius by genius. I know any greatness of science is (a) up for debate and (b) tends to come from long, iterative work done by largely anonymous groups, not starry individuals. I have to admit to finding the veneration of Darwin last year a bit weird. But I’ve thought Frank Oppenheimer was amazing ever since, as an undergraduate, I stumbled across a dusty book about him at the edge of the Science Museum library.

Really short version: Frank was J. Robert Oppenheimer‘s little brother. Like his brother, Frank was also a physicist and also worked on the Manhattan Project. Post-war, he was blackballed as a communist so went off to run a cattle ranch, later becoming a teacher before re-joining academia. After a brief sabbatical at UCL he dropped university life again and moved to San Fransisco to found the Exploratorium (now a model for science museums all over the world).

Short version: Go read my second piece for the Guardian science blog festival.

Medium-long version: Have a play at the Exploratorium’s history site.

Long version: Get hold of a copy of  KC Cole’s biography.

Let’s not build heroes here. Frank Oppenheimer didn’t save the world. In fact, we might even say that as someone involved in the Manhattan Project, he played a small part in the closest we’ve come to destroying it. It’s also worth emphasising that the guy wasn’t a saint, and that it’s not like the Exploratorium is the definitive word on how to do science education (personally, I love it, but I appreciate I’m a kinesthetic learner who likes physics). Plus, let’s not forget, he was a rich, white man of the 20th century who’s Dad left him a Van Gough. Still, I think he’s a fascinating chap.

Every now and again I pop into the Science Museum’s mini-Exploratorium, Launch Pad. I build an arch bridge. I mess about with some bubble mix. I remember all the similar exhibits I’ve played with in similar museums all over the world. And I remember that I have a favourite scientist. His name was Frank Oppenheimer.

Science: weighing the public’s shit since 1666

A couple of weeks ago, I attended three lectures on science’s relationship with the public in the space of four days. Even for me, that’s a bit dense.

  • Simon Schaffer‘s Science Museum’s Centenary Talk on Science for the Public. Schaffer is Professor for the History of Science at Cambridge, and much of his talk was rooted in the 17th century.
  • Martin Rees‘ first Reith Lecture for the BBC, part of a series of talks by Rees (President of the Royal Society and Astronomer Royal) on the theme ‘Scientific Horizons’, this focused on science’s relationship with the citizen.
  • A seminar from Brian Wynne hosted by my department at Imperial, reflecting on his now seminal sociological study of post-Chernobyl Cumbrian soil (e.g. this 1992 paper).

This blogpost was just going to be a write up of Schaffer’s talk, but they were so close together, I couldn’t help connecting the three. So this is largely historical, but with a bit of sociology and reflection from a senior scientist thrown in too, and some general thoughts on ignorance, knowledge and weighing up of public shit (both metaphorical and actual).

NB: I apologise, quite seriously, to anyone who objects to the word shit. It’s the only one that really lets me work the metaphor, so I’m keeping it, but I do apologise to those who dislike such terms.

Schaffer’s talk took place in a makeshift lecture theatre set up, very fittingly, outside the museum’s George III Gallery and Launch Pad interactive space. He started with a reference to Douglas Adams, specifically the imaginary labour saving device, “The Electric Monk”. Just as washing machine saves you the labour of scrubbing and wringing out clothes, the Electric Monk would solve one of the main problems of our time: the trouble of believing the incredible. We have all, allegedly, become doubting Thomases: we no longer trust people the we should. We are too incredulous to science. In an age of miracles and demons of science and technology, wouldn’t it be lovely if there was a machine to produce public belief?

Schaffer’s main point, however, was a warning against amnesia or nostalgia when thinking about science in society. He did not like the idea that we have “become a bit bolshie recently”. A particular target was a recent Guardian interview with James Lovelock:

“We need a more authoritative world. We’ve become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say”

Schaffer argued against a mythical time where we revered expertise in a way we no longer do. To hark back to a less cheeky age is, he argued, simply forgetful. It is lazy nostalgia, and wrong. For example, look to Gillray’s 1802 sketch of Humphry Davy at Royal Institution: plenty of fart jokes and satire here, but little deference. If anything, Schaffer went on, our problem today is a new proliferation of experts, there are so-called “experts” in anything and everything. We have lifestyle experts instead of DIY. We live in society that constantly defers.


Schaffer then went on to argue that in making science public, our culture has made very different publics for and with science. If you are ever in London, the difference between the George III Gallery and Launch Pad is indicative of this. He pointed us to the famous Joseph Wright painting “An Experiment on a bird in an air pump” (1768), which draws your attention not only to the eponymous experiment, but a variety of public reactions: revolution, amazement, caution, curiosity and disinterest. Thus, in some respects this painting is less a representation of a birds in air pump and more a representation of publics when science is done in front of them. He also mentioned a painting of a man who collected air pumps, a layman who choose to be represented surrounded by scientific apparatus. Here, Schaffer suggested, the aim was to imply this man should be trusted/ respected because he owned science. Perhaps, though in much smaller ways, some publics ‘patronise’ science in a similar way today too?

Another of Schaffer’s key points was the way in which the public are often articulated as quite passive participants in public-science. Schaffer’s example here was, in his own words “shit and eyes”. To start with the shit: In mid-17th century Florance, there was some debate over antimony versus rhubarb as a laxative. So the powers that be rounded up 50 members of the general public, locked them up and monitored them: measuring, weighing and recording their “outputs” in every way possible. On to the eyes, which are slightly less straightforward. Still in mid-17th century Florance, an aristocrat wanted to test Christiaan Huygens’ observations of Saturn. He collected a set of publics “men off the street” who were not familiar with astronomical theory, standing them at one end of a long gallery and placing a model of Saturn illuminated by moving lamps at the other (to simulate the sun). These lay participants were then asked to draw what they saw. These drawings looked like Huygens’ results, which helped convince people of its validity. Here, as with much medical testing, the ignorance of the observers was something which to be celebrated, it became part of a rigorous scientific method as the lay observers wouldn’t be as biased as “expert” scientists. Such an approach might be strong methodologically , but it does keep the public out of the loop somewhat. In the class structures of Schaffer’s 17th C Florence, it is more easily read as exploitative, but arguably, even today there is a thread of public science which requires lay participants remain ignorant, institutionalising a need for stupidity. There is, Schaffer suggested, a rhetoric of the celebration of ignorance which runs though much of the history of public science. It runs against a lot of other rhetorics of public science – those of the greater dissemination of knowledge and learning – but it is still there, and should be remembered.

Schaffer’s next example of public science was Sir Charles Vernon Boys, a physicist who taught H G Wells at Imperial. Boys was known for his bubble research, so at this point Schaffer stepped aside and gave the stage to one of the museum staff to do mini version of their “bubble show”, which culminated with putting Schaffer inside a giant bubble. Public science, Schaffer noted with a grin as he got out of the bubble, can be a lot of fun. He quickly moved to end on dark note though, showing us another image of bubble science, this time from a test at Los Alamos. Demonstration, he noted gravely, is a military term, it’s a representation to others of one’s own strength. Indeed, Schaffer had previously explored the theme of public experiments as a “trail of strength” (e.g. Otto von Guericke demonstrating the power of vacuums with teams of horses trying to separate hemispheres). The demonstration of science to the public can be a way of showing off science, or at least cleverness, as powerful: one man (the expert) with air pump against a team (the public). At times, Schaffer suggested, science for public can at times look a little like science against the public.

Schaffer’s cautionary conclusion: we should not let our ideas of science in society suffer from either amnesia or nostalgia. Science has been weighing up public shit since 1660, both metaphorically (i.e. repsonding to a lack of public deference) and literally (as the public are passive subjects for experiments). We need to remain aware of this, as a lot depends on public science in the 21st century. Further, with a nod to reality television and “some forms of democracy”, Schaffer warned that we should be careful of any celebration of ignorance. Whatever that ignorance is of, over-deference and lack of critique (a complacency over expertise) is not a productive form of science in public.

It was with these words still echoing in my ears that I took my seat at Martin Rees’ Reith Lecture on “Science and the Citizen”. This will be broadcast by BBC radio on the 1st of June, so you’ll be able to it for yourself. Reflecting Schaffer’s preoccupation with the 1660s (or rather, Rees’ preoccupation with the Royal Society’s 350th birthday), he started off by emphasising that the scientists of late 17th century London were important not just for being experimentalists, but doing so immersed in the practical agenda of their day. The classic example of this being the role Royal Society fellows played in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Rees then went on to argue that we ask more questions of science today. I didn’t feel that this was necessarily the lazy nostalgia Schaffer was getting at. It’s not a sudden cheekiness Rees was talking about, out that we have greater access to information to ask questions with. Moreover, unlike Lovelock, Rees largely argue that such scrutiny should be welcomed. Indeed, one of Rees’ final conclusions was in many respects similar to parts of Schaffer’s, that ignorance is an impediment to public engagement, whether in science or other areas. We shouldn’t let a desire to spread scientific knowlege obscure widespread ignorance in geography or finance. We should all try to know more and reflect on the use, worth and basis of the knowledge we have.

Brian Wynne, on the other hand, had a more diffuse sense of ignorance. It was ignorance of science, by scientists as well as publics. There was lots of ignorance going around his story: Farmers, Scientists, Politicians (groups that all pointed figures of ignorance at, and within, each other too). In particular, I was struck by a point Wynne made about a ‘lost’ bit of research, a Nature paper from the 1960s which could have been more constructively applied. The question had ceased to be active, so the research had ceased to be funded, and so, due to the practice-based nature of science, the research ceased to be used and was forgotten. All of this, I should emphasise wasn’t some sort of playful critique of science from outsider. Something worth remembering about Brian Wynne is that he has a PhD in materials science from Cambridge. In some respects, this showed in his talk, he spent quite a large chunk of time on the physical processes involved in his case study, there were a fair few graphs and one of his final points was summed up with an equation. However, he wove the more scientific knowledge of the natural world in with knowledge of cycles of farming business. I’d say, that was partly the point. Wynne was as equally strong on a diffuse sense of knowledge as he was on scientific ignorance. When he spoke to farmers in the 1980′s, he continually found them telling him about Windscale in 1957. Such a long cultural memory, Wynne underlined, is evidence based in its own way.

Back to Schaffer. One of his most interesting points was, inevitably, in the questions. He was asked about Einstein and way the uncertainties of “the new physics” had an impact on public confidence with scientific certainty. In response Schaffer argued that Einstein’s importance as icon of public science was less relativity, and more that he was the first to produce a paper where everyone was told “this is entirely true and yet most of you will never understand it”. This reflected a new relationship between science and the public for an age of specialisation and more extreme peaks of expertise (arguably, a seminal moment in our contemporary obsession with trust). This, perhaps, is the main reason we might need Adams’ Electric Monk. Maybe we already have them; we all have to believe quite so much in order to get through the day.

How much you believe the relationship between science and the public has or has not changed in the last 350 years, I think Schaffer’s points are still worth thinking about. Science has been “weighing public shit since 1660″, whether that’s because the public shout back at them or because so much research has been embedded in solving the practical concerns of the day (“blue skies” or not). Personally, I still hope for constructive debate between the various gaps and differences of knowledge and ignorance. I suspect there is a long history of productive collaboration if we look for it too. Still, the shit and the petty showing off (on all sides) is there, it runs deep and is likely to remain so. It’s worth keeping an eye out.

Shell, Signs, Sponsorship and the Science Museum

This post is my attempt to say something about last week’s “Science Museum goes climate sceptic, sponsored by SHELL!” fuss. I also hope to provide a bit of a catchup for those who didn’t notice the story/ have forgotten it already. My argument is largely that the Science Museum isn’t a scientific institution, it is a public one. We should expect it to take a broader view. I also think that if they are taking Shell’s money, they should reflect Shell’s views on climate change: as transparent as possible, warts and all. Don’t let Shell hide behind the museum’s claims to “editorial control”. I want the gory details. Moreover, such views should placed next to similar statements from scientists and environmental campaigners. These views, and more, are all ones a national museum of science should be active in collecting and exhibiting.

But first, the catchup. Early last week, the Science Museum issued a press release announcing details of a new gallery about climate change, scheduled to open next November. Cue outrage. There was always going to be a fuss. People love to bitch about the Science Museum, it presses buttons of personal nostalgia, national prestige, controversies of public spending and anxieties about the future all at once. We also, increasingly, seem to love to bitch about climate change. What fulled much of last week’s particular fuss focused on two points, and their possible interaction. Firstly, the museum signaled a desire to debate the controversy rather than preach at their visitors:

“Our objective is to minimise the shrill tone and emotion that bedevils discussion of this subject, satisfying the interests and needs of those who accept that human-induced climate change is real, those who are unsure, and those who do not”.

A point which many seemed to take as a nod to “deniers” of human-caused climate change. Secondly, Shell would be sponsoring the gallery. Although it is also worth noting that Siemens, the Garfield Weston Foundation and Defra are also chipping in, Shell is the primary sponsor, and the idea of an oil company bankrolling a national exhibition about climate change does boarder on the self-satirising (and that’s without getting into Garfield Weston’s links to Primark). Reuters, The Daily Mail and The Times all covered it, but Ben Goldacre sums it up with the simple comment: “Science Museum exhibition “neutral” on climate change: sponsored by Shell, not stylish”.

It’s worth noting a bit of history to these issues. BP sponsored the museum’s Energy gallery, and Shell provided funds for the recent rebuilding of Launch Pad (details of FOI request relating to this). It’s probably also worth noting that Nintendo are secondary sponsors for Launch Pad, a point some might find more controversial in a child-orientated gallery. Dig back even further, and there’s the issue of the old BNFL sponsored nuclear gallery, with its ever-so-easy-to-miss bomb section (neat bit of ’80s sociology of science on this). Sponsorship aside, it’s also worth remembering the museum’s somewhat bungled attempt at public engagement over climate change with their Prove It! exhibition (critique from Guardian art critic).

Yesterday the museum (finally) released some clarification, stressing their content will be evidence led and the museum retains editorial control despite sponsors, but that they worry that too-narrowly a conceived gallery will alienate audiences. The new gallery, they underline, will fulfill what they see as a:

“need for a public space where people who agree, who are unsure, and who disagree that humans are affecting the climate system are able to explore the science and make up their own minds”

Personally, I’d say “fair enough” on this point (see final paragraphs of this post). Goldacre’s point still stands though: Shell sponsorship is “not stylish”. Moreover, I’d argue that in the largely visual medium of a museum, the style issue is crucial. After-all, the Science Museum are well known for their obsession with design.

I was a gallery hand at the museum when the BP-branded Energy gallery opened. We were briefed to explain to visitors that the museum had maintained control throughout the exhibition design. As the gallery-hand briefing went, editorial control was part of the contract, the museum wouldn’t have done it otherwise. Moreover, BP wouldn’t have wanted to connect themselves with the museum if they were seen as easily bought. No one’s brand would benefit from anything other than complete editorial control. For what it is worth, I believe this. However, I also saw the ways in which visitors would react when they found out about BP’s involvement. You cannot deny the semiotics of the simple “sponsorship by” sign. Maybe the museum does maintain editorial control. But the visitor turning up on a rainy bank holiday doesn’t know this. They shouldn’t necessarily be expected to either. They see the logo, this quite reasonably sets off their bullshit detector, which in turn affects their experience of the gallery.

Energy Futures

Panel in Energy Gallery, Science Museum

I have two points where I feel I can defend the Science Museum on, although not without some critique of them and the situation they find themselves working within. Firstly, an aspect in the press release we really should be making more of: the gallery is going to cost £4m. Where do we expect this money to come from? Now, we could argue that’s an unnecessary overspend. I might have some sympathy with that point of view (see note above on obsession with design), but even done reasonably cheaply, if it’s going to look respectable, it’s going to cost. Another useful snippet of information gleaned from Science Museum training: when national museums still charged admission in the 1990s, the government subsidised each £9 ticket by roughly a further £20. This point is worth remembering if museums start charging again: we’re still subsidising them, heavily, but we’ll probably subsidising a smaller and richer set of visitors. Museums are expensive.

Secondly, I do, quite seriously, agree that the museum should be highly attuned to the dangers of alienating people. Mike Hulme made a good point when he talked to our students last year: we should take “climate agnostics” seriously. We can fight over whether or not we like the religious metaphor another time, what I want to emphasise here is the existence of those people who, for whatever reason, aren’t sure about climate change and find Greenpeace, Shell, the deniers and the climate scientists as potentially annoying and distrustful as each other. I also want to stress the need to take their views seriously. Throw your hands up in the air with incredulity at their stupidity if you like: see how far that gets you. As Chris Rapley told the Times:

The climate science community, by and large, has concluded that humans have intervened in the system in a way that will lead to climate change. But that is their story. It’s not our story, so that can’t be our conclusion. If we take sides we will alienate some of the people who want to be part of the discussion.

The Science Museum, unlike the Natural History Museum next-door, isn’t a scientific institution. A fair number of ex-scientists work there, but they exist to talk about science rather than do it. This is as much a benefit as it is a failing of the place. It is the “science” museum; it should reflect what the scientific community say. However, it exists in and serves a broader community, it exists and serves to bring the messages of the scientific community into that broader community, it has to be careful about taking sides.

This reflects a very basic tenet of professionalised/ academic science communication (which many of the museum staff will be well versed in): patronise publics and they’ll only ignore you all the more. It’s more democratic to listen to outside voices, but it’s also basic PR: at the very least pretend you respect the people you want to convince, otherwise why on earth would you think they’ll listen? Conversation is where cultural change will happen. To this end, bring the more extreme ends of the debate. Sample those views, collect and curate them, even use them as a way into to showing off how much stronger the scientific case is. The Science Museum should provide a site for the charting of where and how we disagree on science; where these ideas have all come from and how we might (individually and collectively) move them on.

The Science Museum should maintain its editorial control, but include Shell’s views on climate change too. If Shell are going to have involvement in this gallery, I want to see what they think about climate change, warts and all. Include statements from the other sponsors too, and more: I want to see samples of Greenpeace, Plane Stupid and Christopher Booker for that matter. Also, importantly, a load of less famous people/ groups in between. Please note, I don’t expect Greenpeace et al to have to pay for their involvement. I should also note, this includes Greenpeace having the balls to join in as much as the Science Museum inviting them. Maybe such debate on climate change cannot be done without the symbols and ideas of one point of view pissing another off. Maybe, as George Monbiot wrote recently, we rarely change our mind, especially about climate science. Still, I am keen to see the Science Museum try. I just hope Shell, Defra and Garfield Weston aren’t the only controversial logos present on the gallery floor.