Can the Science Museum be up-to-date?

I visit the Science Museum in London at least twice a year, so I was interested to read an interview with their new Director, talking about how he’s going to change the place:

A month into his job, Professor Rapley is sitting in his South Kensington office, telling me that broadly the museum’s collection celebrates “the advances in technology since the Industrial Revolution, right up to, but not quite including, today”.

He wants to turn that on its head. “Its image is that it looks backwards through its collection. It’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s for children. Where we want to go with it, the tag line is, ‘the museum of the future’.” He would like the museum to be sufficiently up-to-date that someone seeing, say, a climate-change sceptic on TV, might think, “I’m confused about climate change. I’d better go to the Science Museum and see what they’re presenting in order to help me make up my mind.”

Prof. Rapley is spot on when he says that ‘it’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s for children’. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing (and I suspect he agrees), but I’m pleased with his desire to make the museum more up-to-date for adults. Unfortunately, I remain to be convinced that he’ll be able to accomplish this.

Every single science museum I’ve visited (including ones in London, Liverpool, Glasgow, DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Diego, Amsterdam, San Francisco and Sydney) tries to stay up-to-date with scientific developments with exactly the same methods:

  • Scientific news stories shown on computer touchscreens and big TVs

Basically useless. If you’re an adult in a science museum, you probably know a little about science, and you will know how to use the internet. So why bother coming in to a museum to read about science news on a computer, when you can do that at home?

  • Quarterly, or perhaps monthly, standing displays on scientific issues

Not current enough – people forget about stuff after a month, certainly three months.

  • Short talks from scientists, a few times a day

Not only do visitors need to be aware of when the talks are happening, but they need to be there on time and have the patience to sit through it. This is an unlikely confluence of events.

  • Guys dressed in white labcoats sitting behind a desk, ready to answer scientific questions

Who talks to these guys? what are you supposed to say? ‘What are your views on stem cells?’ No-one expects someone to be knowledgeable in every scientific discipline, so that further dissuades any questions.

So, you can see why I am very doubtful about the ability of the Science Museum to stay up-to-date.

The General Problem

By definition, for science museums to stay up-to-date, they have to respond rapidly to scientific developments in the news. They have to write content, design graphics, incorporate feedback and get it all produced within, preferably, a few days. Maybe a week.

Contrast this to the timelines involved with bigger exhibits. I was recently involved with a pitch to a science museum for an interactive exhibit, and everyone involved commented on how tight the deadlines were; we only had six months to get everything done! Clearly these longer timelines are not a problem for exhibits that are not topical (the British Museum might easily take a decade to get a whole new exhibit produced – it’s not as if Ancient Egypt is changing), but it’s just no good for being up-to-date.

I feel that science museums are institutionally uncomfortable with being up-to-date. Creating content quickly means that they risk controversy (e.g. stem cells, GM food) or even worse, being wrong, because they have to reduce time spent on fact-checking and feedback. And so they outsource the development of their up-to-date sections to science magazines or websites, ultimately rendering the whole exercise pointless.

Of course, I have a solution

There are people out there who commentate on scientific developments incredibly rapidly, with accurate and engaging articles, and they even do it for free. They’ve science bloggers, and they range from Cognitive Daily, which consistently produces clear posts (and even original research) on neuroscience and psychology, to Cosmic Variance, which covers all sorts of topics (check out the brilliant post on Telekinesis and Quantum Field Theory). And of course, there’s Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, who deserves a medal for his sterling writing on homeopathy and the MMR vaccine.

If you want to read informed opinions on current science news, these blogs are the best starting point; there is simply no way in which any science museum can compete with their speed. They might hire bloggers, but that would simply increase traffic to the museums’ websites, not to the museums themselves. So let’s just say that trying to emulate the speed of science bloggers is basically a losing proposition.

The question then becomes, what can museums do better than the web, if they can’t be faster?

Museums can marry huge visuals with sounds, and objects, and lighting, and hands-on exhibits. They have the budget to afford technology that is beyond the reach of home users, such as object-tracking and multi-touch displays. They have the space to get visitors to interact with each other, and with professionals. In short, museums can produce experiences.

Now, many will scoff at the idea that you could produce these experiences in the space of a month, let alone a week. However, it can be done, and I have seen it done, and I have done it myself (creating an ARG like Perplex City on the fly for over 50,000 people concentrates the mind somewhat). Here’s what you need:

  • talented and fast writers familiar with science (e.g. science bloggers)
  • programmers comfortable with rapid development cycles (e.g. RoR, flash game devs)
  • graphic designers who understand information architecture (e.g. web designers, infographic designers for newspapers)
  • a core set of technologies – displays, sound, large format printers, CNC mills, etc – that are tested and come with experienced engineers who can liaise with the programmers
  • management who will accept a certain level of risk

All of these people need to be in-house, or at least 100% dedicated to the project for an appreciable amount of time. This sort of team is expensive, but it could produce topical exhibits in the space of one or two weeks. Imagine an exhibit about nuclear power that goes live a fortnight after a government report, showing its costs, benefits and dangers, with interviews from scientists and a game that allows visitors to experiment with different types of reactors and power stations. And imagine, a fortnight later, you have a completely different exhibit on the UK’s plans to make a communication network around the Moon. It could draw return visitors the likes of which no science museum has seen.

There’s no reason why the team couldn’t be shared between museums, providing that the technology is standardised. Visitors to science museums in Glasgow will have the same questions about science as those in London, and they’re not likely to visit both within the space of a fortnight, so a single team could produce the content for exhibits to be used by many museums.

I grant that this may sound like freewheeling madness to curators who are more used to dealing with words like ‘months’ or ‘years’ rather than ‘weeks’ or even ‘days’. It lacks the rigour and polish and testing that most curators would prefer. But if science museums truly want to become up-to-date and be more than a place for kids and the history of science, there are no alternatives.

One Reply to “Can the Science Museum be up-to-date?”

  1. A small aside on a point you mention early on:

    Short talks from scientists, a few times a day

    I was amazed when I visited the Palais de la Decouverte, the “old” science museum in central Paris, that there were talks on almost all the time. My memory is that there was a half hour talk every two hours, and since there were about eight galleries, that meant you always had a choice of at least two talks. This review of the museum says that 30% of the staff are explainers, and that they’re scientists to boot. As I say in the description of my photo, I’d be willing to put back charges for a museum if it was needed to fund something like that. (As to where the Science Museum could find explainers: well, it is right next to Imperial College.)

    While this might not fix the problem of topicality to the extent your proposal does, it may be more help with scientific literacy and so on.

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