Science centres and museums at PCST 2012

Luisa Massarani

Luisa Massarani
Latin America regional coordinator, SciDev.Net


Marzia Mazzonetto, Ecsite Project Coordinator and my good friend after years of working together in science communication, heard that I was writing a blog on PCST 2012 and got “jealous” — in the good sense, of course. She has attended several sessions on science centres and museums during the conference and has written a post for us. Cool, isn’t it? Here it is:

Science centres and museums all over the world are one of the places where public communication of science and technology is put into practice. They were also the focus of some of the several presentations that have been given during the two intense days of the PCST conference.

Different issues have been raised by the experts from the field, showing that science centres and museums face similar challenges and innovation needs as the rest of the wide science communication community.

One of the questions that was asked and discussed during these sessions was how science centres are and should be forums for communicating controversial scientific issues.

Underwear in a 2010 exhibition at the State History Museum in Moscow, Russia

Catherine Franche, director of Ecsite, the European Network of Science Centres and Museums, mentioned a controversial list recently published in the US about objects that should never be shown in museums, which even included such items as underwear or images of naked human bodies.

How can be science explained in museums without being able to show some of the basic elements of biology and the world around us?

Sharon Ament, director of public engagement at the Natural History Museum in London, United Kingdom, presented some interesting examples of how her museum managed recently to use objects from its own collections to present an exhibition and associated activities on controversial topics such as slavery, evolution and sex.

Homo Habilis skull from a 2009 exhibition at London's Natural History Museum

The environment was a key theme of several presentations.  It’s not just journalists who face the pressure of reporting on environmental issues; museum experts and researchers also fear a lack of real connection between what is being shown and told and the critical issues with which to engage the public.

A interesting presentation on the topic was given by Joëlle Le Marec, from the Université Paris Diderot in France, during a highly multicultural session entitled “On the meaning of participation and democracy in different cultural and social contexts”.

Joëlle talked about how the theme of the environment “entered” science museums in France. She said that while in the 1970s and 80s environmental issues were presented as elements of reflection between inhabitants and their own territories, nowadays the environment is presented as a scientific object, more closely related to progress and international development and events rather than something connected to local issues.

Butterfly from Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil

Is this new narrative of environment in science centres contributing to making people feel like environmental issues are something very far away from them?

Several other sessions at PCST 2012 have offered interesting experiences and studies coming from activities in science museums on topics such as evolution, genetically modified organisms and climate change. One more session worth mentioning was “Science and governance in a knowledge society: Research and best practices on the role of science centres and museums”.

Organising activities and exhibitions in a museum means a lot of work but it’s also fun, interesting and sometimes very difficult and challenging. Paola Rodari, project manager at Sissa Medialab in Trieste, Italy — and an expert in museum studies — said something that museums should never stop doing is evaluation; reflecting and possibly researching the effectiveness of the exhibitions and activities that they offer.

Museums are places where people can get together to discuss, dialogue and share opinions on science issues, but also contribute directly to the museum’s growth by sharing their hopes and expectations. They are also places where, in some instances, visitors can interact directly with scientists who have labs and run research directly inside the museum complex (as is the case with the Nature Live Labs at the Natural History Museum in London).

A young visitor to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the United States

How to evaluate and learn more about how these activities and issues are pushing science centres and museums to evolve, and how they are directly influencing science research and science policy is food for thought for future PCST conferences for sure!

This blog post is part of our Public Communication of Science & Technology (PCST2012) conference coverage.

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