Category Archives: museums

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.

Blogs a science communication student might like

A colleague asked me for a list of blogs that next year’s science communication MSc students might like to read. I figured the only way to share this information was in a blogpost.

Warning: there is no such thing as a reading list of science blogs, you need to explore for yourself. These are just starting points.

Twitter is a good way of engaging with the science blogosphere. My “awesome science” list of people who write and/ or link to great science writing on the web should be a useful starting point. Twitter is also brilliant for discussing/ eavesdropping on debates about science in the media and policy, so I can recommend people on my science policy and science communication lists too. Please note, many of these accounts will tweet about other things too.

These links are really just the tip of the iceberg. Or, a small section of a big chunk of ice, as I’m not sure something iceberg-shaped is the appropriate metaphor. I should also add that I don’t agree with everything these people blog/ tweet about. Not even close. They do, however, tend to write about topics a science communication student might be interested in. At the very least, they’ll point you towards some new ideas and make you think.

Click on a few links here and see who they link to. See what entertains, educates or enrages you. Go, have a play.

Treatise on the Astrolabe

Here’s a nice TED talk on the astrolabe, thanks to Alun Salt for the tip-off. The speaker uses an example of an astrolabe from the Oxford Museum for the History of Science (also featured in Alun’s blogpost). The Science Museum have some pretty gorgeous ones too.

I won’t rehearse what an astrolabe is here, watch the video. But I can use it to say something about children’s science books. The first manual for the Astrolabe was written for a kid (Geoffrey Chaucer’s son Lewis, yes that Chaucer). The British Museum has an astrolabe they think matches the one the Chaucers would have used. This book is often described as first children’s book. So, the first ever children’s book was a science book.

This little fact-ette pleases me immensely. Obviously it relies on a rather ridiculous (not to mention anachronistic) over-simplification of our definitions of “children” “science” and “book”. I don’t care though. When people at children’s literature studies conferences look at me with incredulity when I say I study science books (people have, quite seriously, looked down their noses and informed me “but, non-fiction isn’t literature“), I love to direct them to Chaucer.

Via Peter Hunt (1994) An Introduction to Children’s Literature (Opus, Oxford: pp.189) if you want a full bibliographic reference from a professor of children’s literature studies.

museum sponsorship, climate change and the Smithonian


This video comes via a Treehugger piece on the Smithsonian’s new human origins gallery. That’s the new David H Koch Hall of Human Origins, as in “coal empire billionaire” David Koch who sponsored the gallery. The complaint made by Treehugger, Joseph Romm (the guy in the video) and some others being, simply, that this gallery’s depiction of human evolution is being used to peddle some rather unscientific ideas about climate change. Specifically, how much the climate has changed since the industrial revolution, and the ways humans have/might adapt to such change. To get an idea of their argument, just watch the video of Dr Romm at the exhibition.

Last week I blogged about Shell’s sponsorship of a climate change gallery at the London Science Museum, so thought it was worth flagging up this controversy from over the pond too. I don’t pretend to know nearly as much about the Smithsonian. Still, whether Treehugger et at are being fair or not, the controversy is interesting in itself. Googling from a desk in South London (e.g. see also write up in USA today, and the review and curator Q&A in the Washington post) it does look scarily as if the Smithsonian have managed to avoid having to even pay lip-service to Intelligent Design, only to have their story of evolution hijacked to relay a rather marginal approach to climate change science. It was also interesting to find this Washington Post story, from 2007, suggesting the Smithsonian had previously toned down an exhibition on climate change, fearing anger from Bush administration.

Whilst on the topic, I think it’s also worth flagging up this report in Nature on the rise in philanthropically-funded climate change work. They refer to a range of activities, including supporting academic research. Whether you prefer your climate science and climate science communication funded by charities or by the tax payer (and so, we might hope, also accountable to the tax payers) is an important question, one that probably reflects your own personal politics. Like many members of the British science community, I’m thankful for the existence of the Wellcome Trust but I’m also very thankful that the Wellcome Trust happens to be quite so awesome (for “awesome” read “run largely by people who happen to agree with me”).

The Nature news piece and Smithsonian controversy might seem very American concerns, but as the bulk of state-sponsored science communication in the UK goes into pre-election purdah, they are matters for us Brits to mull over too. As Christine Ottery has just blogged in terms of investigative science journalism “Heigh-ho: here’s to the future, here’s to new funding models”. If we don’t want people like Shell or Koch or the government bankrolling such work, who do we want to pay for it? Who will we trust, why, and how are we going to make this work?

Thanks to Scott Keir for the tip-off on this story.

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.