The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

May 02, 2012

Alan Alda warms up science communication with the Flame Challenge

How would you explain flame — what is it? what’s going on in there? — to an 11 year old? I grew up watching Alda play an army doctor on M*A*S*H, but his acting and PBS interviewing work have led him to some real-world questions about how science is conveyed to us laymen. In partnership with Stony Brook University, where Alda teaches scientists how to improvise and “be more authentically themselves” with the public, he has organized a contest for scientists and anyone else who wants to enter. Submissions are now being an 11 year old near you.

I blogged a year ago about how little patience the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman had for standard science pedagogy, which too often teaches us vocabulary (“energy,” “momentum”) but not what’s really going on.

Alda is putting on Feynman’s mantle when he describes his own 11 year old self asking his teacher what a flame is and being told, predictably, “It’s oxidation.” As he writes in a recent guest editorial in the prestigious journal Science, “I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name.”


Hence the Flame Challenge, which received more than 800 entries from 30 countries. After being vetted for accuracy by scientists, the entries were sent to kids at 130 schools around the US for judging. Finalists and a winner will be announced next month at the World Science Festival in New York. (That festival, as I’ve mentioned, is run by the real latter-day Feynman, theoretical physicist Brian Greene, along with his partner, the science journalist and media producer Tracy Day.)

The emphasis here is on clarity, on helping somebody really get the concept. Alda is no fan of dumbing down; there’s no condescension here about the sophistication of the average 11 year old. The point he’s making is that if you can communicate a complex idea successfully to a kid, you know you’ve really nailed it. And a sixth grader is less likely than an adult to nod sagely when he’s fed an “explanation” that’s really just a vocabulary list.

But Alda is onto something deeper here. When he pursued that clarity and accessibility in his interviews with scientists, he found that the interactions became warmer, more human, more connected. It wasn’t just the facts that came to life, it was the people behind the facts — as well as their relationship to Alda and, by extension, viewers at home.

Having to talk with someone who was truly trying to understand caused an actual human interaction to take place in these interviews. There was more warmth, and the real person behind the scientist in the white lab coat could emerge. Suddenly, both young people and adults could see that scientists were like them, with a natural way of speaking and even a sense of humor. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Informal science education, Institutional personality, Natural history, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling, Subjectivity
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May 30, 2011

The participatory revolution is all around us

Okay, maybe “revolution” is a little dramatic. But preparing for my talk last week at the American Association of Museums meeting in Houston, I found no shortage of evidence that our culture is being reshaped by the work of many hands. Authority ain’t what it used to be.

I was chairing a panel on which three great people from STEM museums (Shari Werb from Smithsonian Natural History, Tom Owen from an exhibits firm working on the Kennedy Space Center visitor center for NASA, and Meg Lowman, a pioneering rainforest canopy biologist who directs the new Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences) talked about how citizen science — or more to the point, visitor science — will play out in new facilities they’re building.

My job was to frame the topic, and I did so pretty broadly. This isn’t just about museums, I told the museum professionals in the room, or even about the culture sector more broadly. It’s about new roles that people like you and me are playing in all kinds of domains.

Those roles are described by various buzzwords, from crowdsourcing and user-generated content to maker culture, citizen journalism, citizen science, and so on. They’ve occasioned a slew of books, some celebratory (like Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, or We Are Smarter than Me) and some critical (Andrew Keen’s The Cult of The Amateur).

What’s it all about? Among other things, a changing sense of what authority and expertise are supposed to look like. (Not coincidentally, authority and expertise have been the foundation of museums’ value systems. No wonder they’re anxious.) At the root of “authority” is the word “author,” and I suggested that what’s changing is who gets to tell the story, who gets to be the expert. The answer, increasingly often, is you.

You’re not just a voter; you’re a civic problem-solver, at least if you live in one of the four cities where Give a Minute is operating. You’re not just a consumer or an armchair inventor, you’re an Innocentive problem solver (“We need your brain power to help solve some of the world’s toughest problems”).

You’re not just a buyer of stuff, a la Amazon. You’re a maker of the stuff in the first place, thanks to online communities like Etsy. And community isn’t just a metaphor here; Etsy also happens in real places where you can make things with others (like the Brooklyn Etsy Labs below).

In music, you’re not just an audience member. You’re a “rusty musician” playing onstage at the Baltimore Symphony alongside the pros (a program I blogged about last year). ...

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Categories: Citizen science, Museums, Natural history, Science museums, Visitor experience
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August 23, 2010

More on subjectivity, this time from the north woods

As some of you know, I’ve been thinking about what cultural institutions might gain if they let their own personalities and motivations shine through a little more. Maybe that’s why I’m seeing examples of subjectivity everywhere, including places far from concert halls or science museums.

I was camping last week with my family and some others in the Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Our group had arranged for a visit by the “raptor lady,” Gayle Bruntjens, who runs Upper Michigan Raptor Rehab with her husband. Working with a few volunteers and a network of other nonprofits and government agencies, they take in injured eagles, hawks, and owls from all over the U.P., give them veterinary care, and eventually re-release the ones that heal.

The less fortunate birds — victims of accidents or human abuse, some of it mind-boggling — end up residing permanently with Gayle and making unexpectedly adorable appearances in her educational presentations at schools, camps, etc.

On the surface, her talk to our group was just like the animal demonstrations that go on at nature centers, zoos, and science museums all over. She explained what differentiates the raptor family from other birds, told us what to do if we see an injured or orphaned bird, helped a few hawks and owls out of their wicker hampers to show around to us, and gave us some information about her nonprofit and its mission.

But before all that, she did something that I rarely see in more established, professionalized settings. She told us, in personal and forthrightly emotional terms, how she got into this work and what it means to her. She told us her story, as context for the birds’.

And it happens to be a good one: beating the odds on a rare form of brain cancer, switching careers to a dead-end night job that gave her time to dabble in genealogy and discover her Native American heritage, and serendipitously running into a friend who needed a hand with some wounded birds of prey. She now sees her work as a fruition, even maybe a destiny, and she feels connected to the birds on a spiritual level as well as an ecological one. In Anishnabe teaching, raptors are the Creator’s messengers, and Gayle sees herself as being a messenger for the messengers. ...

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Categories: Engagement, Institutional personality, Museums, Natural history, Performing arts, Personal reflections, Science museums, Subjectivity
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May 30, 2010

Science museums and environmental action: Learning only goes so far

Zoos, aquariums, and science museums are no longer content to describe the world; they’re trying to improve the world by changing visitors’ attitudes and behaviors. But many are operating under the mistaken assumption that the way to do it is to present the facts.

You could always go to a natural history museum, science center, zoo, or aquarium to learn things about the natural world. These days, part of what you learn is how the natural world is changing due to human activity: biodiversity loss, deforestation, climate change, and so on. These things, as museum exhibits and programs often remind us, are scientific, objective facts.

Granted. But the museums don’t just want to educate us; they want to inspire us to action, or at least to new levels of caring about nature. In the words of the typical NSF grant, they hope the exhibit or program will lead to cognitive, affective, and behavioral change.

Yet most of them make a big, unexamined assumption, which is that knowing the facts will change people’s minds (and eventually their actions).

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Categories: Institutional personality, Museums, Natural history, Science museums
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May 28, 2010

Museums and subjectivity: food for thought from the AAM annual meeting

I’ve got a lot of blog-catching-up to do, and I’ll start with a few ideas I heard in Los Angeles this week at the American Association of Museums gathering. As some of you know, I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of subjectivity in cultural institutions, and I was happy to hear several speakers strike the same note.

Subjectivity is one of those ten-gallon abstractions, but I just mean the human, personal presence that animates an act of communication — say, a museum exhibition or a symphony performance.

That presence can be felt on at least three different levels. If the story is about Einstein’s discovery of special relativity, the storyteller might emphasize the subjectivity of the “characters” in the drama: Einstein’s struggles, feelings, thought process, beliefs, or the way he burst into the apartment of his friend Max Born to share a realization that had just clicked. I find this kind of subjectivity more common in science books than science museum exhibits, which tend to be more about concepts than scientists. But we do see a little of it.

Or the storyteller could emphasize the audience’s subjectivity — the responses, feelings, beliefs, and ideas in our minds as we take in the story. Museums have been doing this since the dawn of interactive museum displays, but exhibits like “You! The Experience” (at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry) and the rise of participatory, co-created experiences show how comfortable museums have gotten with the subjectivity of their visitors.

But what about their own subjectivity? What about the feelings, commitments, attitudes, and plain old human personality of the storyteller(s)? In our Einstein example, how does the “author” (of a book or any other form of cultural communication) connect to this story? What does it mean to her, and how and why did she come to know it? ...

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Categories: Culture sector, History museums, Institutional personality, Museums, Natural history, Science museums, Visual art
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March 28, 2010

A tasty brew of experiences at “Science Storms,” with no eco-agenda on the side

My last post was about Edward Rothstein’s Times piece on the state of science museums, “The Thrill of Science, Tamed by Agendas.” Today, a few words (and pictures) about MSI Chicago’s new $34 million permanent exhibit, which I'll bet Rothstein is going to love.

I spent a few hours at the exhibit this week, most of that time in the witty company of Charles McGhee Hassrick, a senior exhibit developer on the project. The other voice in my head was Rothstein’s, naturally, since the exhibit is a concrete example of several of his do’s and don’ts. So at the risk of letting him set the, um, agenda, I’ll just make a few quick observations that link up with his concerns.

First of all, there is little or no attempt here to foster social change, in fact nothing overtly political. The emphasis isn’t on protecting the natural world, it’s on experiencing natural phenomena first hand, ideally in ways that lead to understanding. Which is exactly what Rothstein calls for in his article.

But of course this “agendalessness” isn’t ideology-free. This is the Museum of Science and Industry, and there are more captains of industry than of science on its board of trustees. In a museum in which whole exhibits used to be designed and written by the corporations that sponsored them, we can be forgiven for reading Science Storms as in part a political statement about the proper (that is, limited) role of science: experimental inquiry and technological innovation, even artful wondrousness, but no stepping over the line into ethical pronouncements.

Or maybe this is just back-to-basics museology, a return to the hands-on empiricism of the Exploratorium and the self-driven discovery and play it encourages. Hassrick cites the Exploratorium as one of his personal inspirations, and the influence on him and the other developers and designers is visible in much of Science Storms, especially on the mezzanine level of the exhibit where the interactives are built on a more human scale. And Rothstein, you’ll recall, singles out the Exploratorium as an inspiring model of the kind of revolution that may still be possible in science museum thinking.

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Categories: Chicago, Child audiences, Innovation, Institutional personality, Learning, Museums, Natural history, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Science museums, Visual art
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March 22, 2010

Science museums “tamed by agendas”… but whose?

Let’s call it Science Week on the blog. Today, some thoughts about Edward Rothstein’s essay in the Museums section of the NY Times. And later this week, my look at the new “Science Storms” exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry.

Actually, both these stories have a Chicago connection (not to be provincial), since Rothstein earned his PhD from the University of Chicago’s famed Committee on Social Thought, a think-tanky mingling of philosophy, sociology, history, theology, classics, art history, and other disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences. The Committee earned a conservative reputation during the reign of political philosophers Leo Strauss and Alan Bloom, and it continues to be associated with leading neoconservative thinkers.

So it’s no surprise to find Rothstein, in a fascinating but uncharacteristically scattered essay about the state of science museums in last week’s Museums section, voicing some anxieties and preferences that are both politically and museologically conservative.

Politically (and I’m using the term broadly), Rothstein objects to the fact that science museums’ exhibits and even architecture have become less “human centered” over time. For example, the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History (full disclosure: a new client of ours) introduces “the most exotic aspects of matter and time” but is less interested in “the ordinary human experience of the heavens.”

Such displays might leave us — young people, especially — “mystified by the world and [make us] lose respect for the human.”

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Categories: Culture sector, Museums, Natural history, Science museums
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March 03, 2010

Spontaneous natural history collection sur la plage

Is collecting nature or nurture? Some thoughts on a little “museum” of found objects I saw on vacation last week.

Museum directors of a certain stripe are fond of saying that collecting is a universal human impulse, especially among kids. The idea is that all kinds of people can relate to museums because everyone knows first-hand the thrill of gathering, organizing, comparing, and studying cool stuff — and it doesn’t matter whether the stuff in question is Renaissance sculpture or dead, soon-to-be-smelly sea stars that washed up in the tide.

Last week, at a hotel my family and I were staying at on St. Martin (I know, it’s a dog’s life), we noticed that a table near the beach had been covered by a collection of shells, corals, seaweeds, sea-glass, stones, and other eye-catching specimens. It seemed to belong to everyone and no one, and a security guard I asked told me that it had been there about two months. During our week there we added a few things to it and saw other guests (kids and adults) do the same. Everyone seemed to enjoy picking things up, touching them, rearranging. There was also some taking away, as my daughters and I discovered when the sea star we contributed was gone the next day. 

Still, I found it delightful. (My girls never got past their indignation that some people were treating it as a trading post.) In this age of participatory engagement and what Clay Shirky has called “the power of organizing without organizations,” here was a community collection that had arisen without rules or even communication but which mirrored (in a raw, messy way) some very old museological impulses: it was organized by form but in a pre-taxonomic way; it mixed biological and inorganic samples, marine and land species, the everyday and the exotic; it seemed to evolve over time as better specimens of the same sort or new categories altogether were added (and others were “deaccessioned” for communal or selfish reasons); and it was of course unlabeled, a piece of installation art as much as armchair science.

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Categories: Early exposure, Learning, Museums, Natural history, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Personal reflections, Visual art
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February 19, 2010

What can museums learn from “club classical”?

Art, science, and history museums are almost synonymous with their physical, institutional spaces and the conventions associated with them. Until recently, you could have said the same thing about classical music.

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has been worried lately about the declines in classical music attendance revealed by various national studies. One of the bright spots he sees — in fact, one potential solution to the broader problem, if the experiment works — is Le Poisson Rouge, the downtown venue in which classical music is played in a jazz-club setting, with patrons drinking and eating and performers talking casually about their work between pieces, just like jazz, folk, and rock performers do.

This isn’t “lite” classical or pop-idol crossover. Serious, marquee-name musicians play at the club, and the programming runs from Bach to cutting-edge contemporary fare. No dumbing down here; just a different set of conventions around the music — conventions that appear to be more relevant, accessible, and appealing to some people than the stylized formality of most concert halls.

Poisson Rouge’s founders are part of a small but expanding circle of performers (like Matt Haimovitz), ensembles (like Eighth Blackbird) and others around the field who are exploring what can happen when you separate the “production” of classical music from the system of nonprofit institutions and foundations that have supported, housed, and controlled that production for the last hundred years or so.

And this, in turn, is something I think of as part of a broader trend toward the de-institutionalization of culture, despite the fact that a few institutions are trying it, too.

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Categories: Classical music, Institutional personality, Museums, Natural history, Visual art
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December 14, 2009

Back to the elephant

Peter and Sarah fly to Washington this week to present findings to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. All of us are excited about the evaluation and what we've learned from visitors. But for me the project feels larger-than-life because now, at the age of 45, I find myself working with the museum I loved more than any other as a kid.

My family wasn't big on museums; my parents were dedicated suburbanites who shied away from cities, which ruled out many of the usual options.  But we did take a family vacation to Washington,  DC when I was about nine, and the Smithsonian was at the top of the agenda.

My most vivid memory of Natural History, oddly enough, is of my father being worried that we wouldn't get a table at the museum's vast cafeteria (the very place where we'll be conducting interviews with visitors in a few weeks).  He took the uncharacteristic risk of leaving me in charge of my two younger brothers while he disappeared into the sea of tables to wait in the distant lunch line.  As we waited, I felt a welling sense of responsibility and adultness, and that sense stayed with me as we explored the exhibits after lunch.

My memories of the exhibits are less concrete, with the exception of that huge elephant standing proudly in the lobby.  I recall thinking (or rather, feeling) that this was a place where new things can happen, where people can change. If there was a little risk involved, there was also an urgency and excitement. The cumulative effect of all the gems and minerals, the fossils and skeletons, and the dioramas wasn't just awe at nature's breadth and beauty.  It was also a sense that this museum was about who we can become, about surprising ourselves.

Hats off to a great museum for inspiring this kid for life.

Categories: Child audiences, Early exposure, Museums, Natural history, Personal reflections
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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