Weeknotes: 4.2016 – Museums are “not for us”, exclusion by design? A write up of #researchagenda and also #MATech2016
Last week was conference and workshop focussed. On Tuesday, Lindsey and I ran the maths project brainstorm workshop (mentioned in a previous weeknotes) at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester which was *very* interesting, and which I’m trying to make sense of for a follow up report at the moment. On Thursday, it was back to Manchester again as Alyson chaired the Museum Association’s Tech 2016 (billed as a Digital Festival for Museums) and Lindsey was there as well to heckle, support and tweet like the wind. Alyson’s slides and some thoughts on that below.
I stayed in London on Thursday though, for what turned out to be a fascinating conference at the Natural History Museum that unveiled and discussed a new learning research agenda (LRA) for natural history museums. It was the culmination of six seminars, run in collaboration with King’s College London and the University of Bristol. They introduced the LRA, but then went on to feature four “provocation” talks, which each proved thought-provoking indeed.
I was intrigued by the focus of the LRA on “wicked problems” being the next big topic for museums of this sort to tackle. Wikipedia says:
A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.
So, climate change mitigation would be a good example of a high profile and significant “wicked problem”, and is one that is particularly relevant for natural history museums. Kevin Crowley (professor of Learning Sciences and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh), in his provocation spoke about this major potential new agenda for museums, which has been summarised in Declaration of Interdependence for Natural History Museums (a initiative in collaboration with the Smithsonian and others). He pointed out that this may not be as simple as just providing more factual information about the subject on a global scale, as this has been shown to sometimes have the adverse effect: making people less likely to feel they can do anything about climate change themselves. Instead, museums and similar projects have had better success with smaller, more locally focussed information and interventions.
Interesting stuff, and there was much discussion on whether or not museums should be taking a stand on issues such as this (and others): should they be advocates or campaigners? Or just present the facts? It was suggested that without museums showing leadership and agency in this area though, the public would be unlikely to heed what they say. So, personally, it feels like museums need to lead by message and by example if they are to have any impact on issues such as climate change. It is also an opportunity to be more relevant, and involve local communities potentially. However, as the 2013 Britain Thinks report commissioned by the Museum’s Association showed, museums are trusted in part because they are perceived as dealing in facts, not opinion (though see below for some dissent on this), so clearly this is a difficult line to tread.
The talk that really grabbed me on the day though (and which I’ve been boring on to everyone I meet about since) was by Emily Dawson, a UCL lecturer in Science Communication, who shared the rather bleak results of some ethnographic research that involved taking low income minority groups to natural history museums and science centres.
Before going, these groups expressed the feeling that that museums were not for people like them. They perceived them as expensive (even if entry is free, food and travel costs money), didn’t know where they were, and thought that they would feel unwelcome and unwanted, and that nobody there would be “like them”. Which is depressing.
Even more unhappily, all of their negative expectations were met. The groups were left feeling that they never wanted to go back (or if they did, they would need the researcher to come back with them again to help them navigate it). The visits actually made them feel worse*about their position in society. This was down to all the factors above, but also the fact that no effort had been made to include information in other languages, bland and expensive food, a lack of representation and a sense that they just didn’t understand how they were meant to behave, which left them feeling excluded.
Finally, even though many museums feel that they take a neutral stance on social or political issues, that was not the perception of this group, who as outsiders could see that there was in fact a very eurocentric bias and view of the world in the curation and interpretation (undoubtedly unintentional, but still).
— Yuri Matteman (@yurimatteman) January 21, 2016
Ouch. I feel that Emily’s papers on this subject should be recommended reading for all of us working in the cultural sector (“Not Designed for Us”: How Science Museums and Science Centers Socially Exclude Low-Income, Minority Ethnic Groups and Equity in informal science education: developing an access and equity framework for science museums and science centres). As museum practitioners we clearly all need to think about how the way we design services can be unintentionally exclusive to people such as these, who could actually have a great deal to contribute (in one example, the birds in a natural history museum had a particular cultural importance to a Somali group, but this was not mentioned in the interpretation. The Somali women ended up doing the dance associated with hunting the bird in the museum, but afterwards felt so mortified that they wrote to Emily to apologise for having gotten “carried away”, another rather sad indication of the failure of the visit).
On a more positive note, I was encouraged by hearing about how the NEMO Science Centre in Amsterdam has integrated learning R&D processes that involve the public into many aspects of its work, to the degree that the restaurant has also got in on the act, testing out new menus with visitors. They also run genuine science experiments that the public can volunteer for on the premises as guinea pigs. For more information about the conference, I recommend having a read through the tweets at #researchagenda.
And so on to #MATech2016 – Lindsey shares her experiences of the day:
The Museums Association Festival of Technology was less about data and more about having a chance to hear how different technologies were being implemented in museums.
It was quite a treat to get to spend a day listening to a wonderful line up of people doing interesting things with tech. The tech festival format was new for Museums Association, a mixture of tech case studies and product show cases. To be honest, my initial fear was a barrage of pitches about someone’s new shiny product with little critical thought on what that product actually delivers beyond “newness”. It was with that thought that Alyson’s presentation explored how organisations could engage positively – but critically – with tech and evaluate the opportunities being presented effectively.
To be fair to the presenters there was little pitching and many really useful observations of what had worked, hadn’t worked and more importantly why. For me this meant a day of inspiration around ideas, opportunities and challenges around digital thinking rather than technology in and of itself. But then I’m not about to commission a bunch of digital for a HLF project, unlike many of the other participants!
Standouts for me personally were George Oates and her thought experiments into what makes a museum and how that is delivered through the digital infrastructure. Deciding to start as small as possible, she’s been developing the Museum in a Box. I personally will be holding on to the idea of looking at boiling ideas down to start small (my natural inclination is to go big!). George also mentioned one of the challenges when faced with launching an innovative product into the museum sector was navigating complex organisations, informing them of the product, it’s benefits and getting permissions to do what was needed to create 3D printed objects, an issue I’ve heard time and time again.
Pete Law spoke about his work at Tate Sensorium. Seeing Pete trying to describe how senses were triggered through interpretation designed for senses was a thing to behold. But, it was the discussion about ‘invisible digital’ that resonated. Tate Sensorium wouldn’t have been possible without digital interventions yet Pete’s aim was to remove the visible presence of digital as much as possible. Digital in and of itself was never the point. Tricky stuff when you’re the winner of the IK prize for Technology! At the back of their minds they kept the Wired test – was it digital enough to be featured in Wired – it was.
There were other projects which were generous in their sharing of insights, opportunities and challenges. On one end of the scale you had Sheringham Museum’s use of Raspberry Pi that should put them on every digital conference speakers list for the next year. Sharing their recipes for simple, creative and delightful yet low cost interventions. On the other end of the scale NHM’s stood out for their super insights into partnerships and the challenges and opportunities of creating immersive experiences using VR and a chance to see Sir David Attenborough which always improves my day.
Looking forward to next year. The slides from Alyson’s talk are below: