Part 3: In Which Ben Gets to the Point

I’ve spent a couple posts raining hate on the media’s portrayal of science and  exuberantly praising science bloggers. I’d like to wrap this series up with a few suggestions for how the excellent science communication in blogs might be applied to other media, specifically museums. Science blogs currently reach a relatively small audience, but the strategies for science communication employed by bloggers can be utilized by media forms that attract far more people.

Museums occupy the lower middle range of visibility among science communication venues. America’s most-visited natural history museum, the National Museum of Natural History, had seven million visitors in 2009, a number which pales in comparison to the 431 million homes reached by the Discovery Channel, but which is considerably higher than the 500,000 2011 subscribers to Scientific American magazine. Nevertheless, museums require special recognition in that they are among the most trusted of media forms. 86% of Americans view museums as a trustworthy source of information, substantially higher than the number of Americans that trust books (61%), television (49%) or newspapers (41%). Since museums are blessed with such high public trust, the stakes are higher for museums to report information accurately.

The New Museums

The museum field has undergone a significant revolution since the 1970s, trading its traditionally academic leadership for an audience-focused and education-based model. This change is beneficial because museums are now beholden to serving the needs of the public, and are trying (and occasionally succeeding) to serve increasingly diverse audiences. Visitors are now seen as active participants in the learning process, rather than passive spectators. This new paradigm has, however, made museums vulnerable to the same pitfalls that plague other media forms. Some in the museum field have noted that concern for public interests has been in some cases led astray by devotion to entertainment. Many newer exhibits sacrifice scholarship and educational value for gimmicks and sensationalism, not unlike the practices in science journalism.

An additional hurdle facing museums is the difficulty of communicating science through objects. Museums are based around objects, but science is based on ideas and concepts. Traditionally, science exhibits would place a spotlight on spectacular objects, but would communicate very little information about why those objects are important and what scientists can learn from them. For example, a paleontology exhibit is typically centered on the enormous mounted skeletons of dinosaurs, but visitors can only learn so much from this kind of display. The audience will surely be impressed by the size of the skeletons, but will leave without understanding what those skeletons tell us about the age of the earth, the evolution and diversity of life, and the place of humans in the natural world. The lack of science in science museums is an oversight that has unfortunately stood the test of time, and museums would do well to reconsider their approach to science communication.

New Strategies

Museum workers are moving toward an audience-centered institutional mission, but have struggled to do so without resorting to the same non-educational sensationalism seen in attempts at science communication in other media. Science blogs, however, are achieving this goal right now: they foster dialogue between scientists and laypeople, without sacrificing intellectual substance.
One of the most important aspects of science blogs is that they introduce audiences to real people doing real science. Firstly, the public gains direct access to the scientific process, which instills appreciation in the reliability of scientific conclusions. Additionally, communicating with working scientists and seeing the work they do demythologizes the process of making knowledge. Science is shown as a tangible process that anybody can become involved with or contribute to. Putting a human face on the scientific process is a powerful tool for engaging the public, and one that some museums have already started using. For instance, as part of the “The Scientist is In” program at the National Museum of Natural History, staff curators set up shop in the exhibit halls, where they answer visitor questions and discuss their current research. This program has proved popular both among visitors and the scientists, who appreciate the opportunity to find out what their audiences are interested in. The implication from “The Scientist is In” and from science blogs is that the idea that scientists are universally poor communicators is false. Public education need not be the exclusive domain of education specialists, and many scientists are eager and willing to take part. Indeed, it is good practice to limit the number of layers of interpretation, as this often contributes to distortion of facts.

Another strong practice of science blogs is encouraging interaction from readers. Blog audiences enter gainful conversations with bloggers, and both parties benefit from this process. Museums can mimic this by inviting visitors to form and share their own conclusions. Process-focused science exhibits can show visitors what kinds of information scientists use to make interpretations, and then invite visitors to try it for themselves. For instance, an exhibit could use a variety of animal skeletons to demonstrate how scientists use indicators like gait and posture to determine how extinct animals may have behaved. The goal is to make the museum exhibit an interactive and intellectually involving experience. Involvement nurtures passion for content, which encourages repeat visits and deeper engagement. This is a new concept for museums, which have traditionally positioned themselves as institutions of intellectual authority. Unfortunately, there is little data on how to successfully integrate web-style discourse into a physical exhibit, because very few museums have tried it. Museums will have to be proactive in order to encourage substantive interaction with the exhibit content, or even among visitors. Some museums have successfully integrated user-generated content into exhibit spaces. For example, the “Playing with Science” exhibit at the London Science Museum invited visitors to place photographs of their own objects into the exhibit, alongside brief statements of the objects’ importance. However, something as simple as a comment board can also encourage visitors to respond intelligently to exhibit content.

Finally, museums should refocus content interpretation away from objects for their own sake and toward ideas. As stated previously, the public’s understanding of science is hindered by the media’s focus on encapsulated facts and discoveries, rather than broad, unifying concepts. Most scientific concepts are inherently logical and do not require specialized knowledge to understand if communicated properly. Evolution via natural selection is a good example. The concept that genetic variations within a population of organisms succeed or fail based on suitability to the present environment is easy to grasp, but a troublingly small percentage of the population is familiar with it. Even among visitors to natural history museums, who are more likely to accept evolution as true than the general population, less than a third are familiar with how natural selection works. Evolution is most important concept in biology and unifies the field. Therefore, it would not be difficult to integrate evolutionary concepts into virtually any exhibit on natural sciences. Communication of scientific concepts like evolution is more important for building science literacy than sharing scattered facts and impressive objects. Objects are excellent teaching tools, but are better when used as examples of underlying ideas.

Science communication in the media is at a tipping point. As the media has edged away from education and toward lowest-common-denominator entertaining, the public need for distinguishing reliable and unreliable information has increased. The misleading and inaccurate presentation of science in the media is woefully unhelpful for supporting an active and informed citizenry. Museums, with their high visibility and public trust, are well positioned to take steps toward reversing this trend. However, museum workers must first strike a balance between the sometimes conflicting goals of public appeal and accuracy. Science blogs are an excellent model for reliable, involving and applicable science communication, but they operate on a much smaller scale than museums. The challenge for museums, and any other media forms up to the challenge, will be to translate the strategies employed by blogs at the micro scale to large institutions.

Selected References

Diamond, Judy, and Margaret Evans. “Museums Teach Evolution.” Evolution. 61.6 (2007): 1500-1506.

Gregory, Jane, and Steve Miller. Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility. New York: Plenum Press, 1998.

MacFadden, Bruce J., Betty A. Dunckel, Shari Ellis, Lynn D. Dierking, Linda Abraham-Silver, Jim Kisiel and Judy Koke. “Natural History Museum Visitors’ Understanding of Evolution.” Bioscience. 57.10 (2007): 875-882.

McLean, Kathleen. “Museum Exhibitions and the Dynamics of Dialogue.” Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift. Ed. Gail Anderson. Lanham: Altamira, 2004. 193-211.

Simon, Nina. “Discourse in the Blogosphere: What Museums Can Learn from Web 2.0.” Museums and Social Issues. 2.2 (2007): 257-274.

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Filed under dinosaurs, museums, NMNH, science communication

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