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).
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?
Reflect the uncertainties in climate science? That’d be an awfully difficult one. The only way to explain it fully would be very mathsy. And if you half explain it you are going to leave people confused…
Stating the utterly obvious, but would the subject matter being displayed, and the museum’s conception of the familiarity of its target audience with it, not have a fair amount of influence on the amount of context that would be offered?
You might think that’s obvious, but I’m not sure what you mean.
I should say the Science Museum does put a lot of work into testing their exhibits and listening to their audiences. It’s something they put a lot of resources into.
The example which occurred to me was the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. In a display of, say, action figures through the ages, they’d want to include written information on the earlier examples, because the target audience (children, though I’m sure they’d be more precise than that) wouldn’t be familiar with the context or application of a tin soldier or a Joe 90 figure, but they wouldn’t need to write too much about a Ben 10 figure because the target audience would be expected to be much more familiar with it. I guess I’m expecting written content in a museum to be purely explanatory, adding context to the actual exhibit, rather than being the exhibit in and of itself.
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I wholeheartedly agree, Alice – I shared similar reservations when I went to visit (… funnily enough I took pictures of the same things too… http://davidpj.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/sunday-science-atmospheres/).
“Our future, our choices”, the theme of the final set of screens, is so upbeat: one of the main dangers of climate change is that we are removing choices from our future, with our actions now. We will have no choice but to respond, and adapt, and suffer consequences if we ‘choose’ to do nothing now. A frustrating message and perhaps I’m being overly negative, but I see a big missed opportunity here.
yes, wow – that is similar!