The ECSITE conference which was held in the beautiful MUSE museum in Trento, Italy is the annual gathering of the practitioners and researchers in the area of science museums and science centres. I attended two of the three days of the conference. The notes below are from some of the sessions that I joined, learning about what are the issues that concern science museums and galleries. I find it fascinating to attend conferences of disciplines that I’m not familiar with – spending my time listening and learning about what are their concerns, plans, issues and ways of thinking and working. The theme ‘food for curious minds’ clearly worked for me.
The Social Inclusion workshop explored personal experiences of practitioners with the project of engagement. The session asked ‘Social inclusion – A fashionable trend? The fundamental question is: why do we want to be inclusive? Are we missing someone or do we think “they” are missing out on the wonderful experiences we have to offer? Do we programme inclusive activities to get special sponsoring or raise visitor numbers? Do we consider inclusion as a trend that we must follow? Or are we truly curious about our non-visitors?‘ and was convened by Barbara Streicher. The organisers started with interventions to explain what inclusiveness mean to them: Simona Ceratto asked the question on why is it easy to work with children, up to 10 or 11, but once they are young adults (16-18) they are not part of the audience that is involved in museum activities? Anna Gunnarsson thought about meeting and communicating with people anywhere. We need to focus on the people that we meet and consider where they are. Very poor people from remote communities are just excluded from activities by not thinking about them. There are only thing that we can learn when we meet people from other parts of the world – starting from personal realisation about the importance of exclusion. Matteo Merzagora considered how to make maker-space more inclusive – as demonstrated by involving disabled people and disadvantaged people together in working in a maker-space in Paris. Moving away from concept of ‘ideal visitors’ and discovering lots of missing dialogues. Inclusiveness need to have a lot of gaps to allow things to happen and for them to be complete. Barbara Streicher noted from her activities around mathematics – people discover how they are doing different calculations, noticing how people from different cultures are reaching the same results but in different ways. Inclusiveness might mean accepting that people work in different ways – don’t assume that we all count to 5 in the same way.
Following this introduction, a core question for the workshop was why are you doing inclusion? In pairs, we continuously asked ‘why?’ to get to the deep meaning about personal and institutional reasons to promote inclusion. The search for the reasons behind the drive to inclusion revealed that participants raise many ethical and moral concerns as their core reasons – expressing humanity, justice, equity while the perception of organisational motives where more pragmatic. Following that, open questions that participants identified as the type that will not go away include: how to be inclusive without ‘normalising’ (conformist) in a field like science which is powerful and universal? How to support disadvantaged group without making the disadvantage the centre? Is there love in the activities of social inclusion or is it because we have to? If member of staff are less valued by visitors than others, how do we act? who is really welcome in our institutions (is there a list of people that are excluded). Inclusion to what?
In the discussion about Redefining Science Centres questions about the need for buildings and physical presence were raised, as well as questions about the need for exhibits, and even if there is a need for scientist or science. Lynn Scarfe (Science Gallery, Dublin) describe the method of Science Gallery, Dublin which is a short cycle of shows, open call for exhibitions, counter-intuitive teams. Need compelling experiences to attract people to come in. Andy Lloyd (International Centre for Life, Newcastle) suggest that ‘do we need science?’ information is not scarce any more, so not primary source any more. If we focus on information too much, than what it say about the nature of science – it’s not about learning the textbook.
During discussions, there was suggestion that science centres are about cultural interactions and these interactions are important. There is a challenge of transitioning from a traditional exhibit space into an experience space. It is not enough to have flexible space but also flexible teams.
In the discussion around the role of Science it was noted that there is a need to consider practices and experiences, but to what degree the goal is to ‘recruit scientists’? There is an aim to make people curious about science, but that doesn’t necessarily done by just telling them about science. Science centres do put themselves in their own ivory towers, which is a risk. The degree of knowledge about the lessons from Science and Technology Studies, history of science or sociology is important. Understanding science as multi-faceted practice is one role of science centres. It is important to have scientists involved. Questions about the value of buildings and specific centres is important – the visitors might need the building, or maybe they should be visible cultural symbols (like churches). Regarding exhibits – flexibility is critical, they should be ‘platforms’ to just discussion and engagements off. Also know what the business of the organisations: meeting place, sharing science info etc. Having the audience creating the exhibit – co-creation.
The session Maker Space – Hacking the Institution discussed the complex relationships between the maker and hacker movements, and the integration of ‘makers’ or ‘hackers’ within museums or science centres. While I caught only part of the discussion, it was interested to hear about a journey to make these activities acceptable within the general activities of museums/science centres (a journey that citizen science is just starting) and the challenges of aligning the modes of operation, practices, plans and goals between the loosely organised and coordinated enthusiasts, and the science organisation. Aligning the goals and getting the activities to work well seem to be challenging.