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Science in Museums: Scientists – They’re Just Like Us!

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on March 13, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Kacie Rice,

In the past few months I’ve become a bit obsessed with the American Museum of Natural History’s fantastic internet campaign celebrating the recent reopening of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial. Launched last fall, the museum’s new website includes an interactive timeline, a series of videos about Roosevelt’s life, and, best of all, a Tumblr featuring pictures submitted by people around the world posing with a small cartoon cutout of Roosevelt. The pictures are diverse, interesting, and often funny – the project not only allows for global participation, but also humanizes Roosevelt, an avid naturalist and explorer who would doubtless be thrilled to find himself travelling the world by proxy.

Caption: Theodore Roosevelt meets a new friend in AMNH’s “Theodore Outdoor Contest.” Credit bseitznyc at TR Tumblr.

Roosevelt, our 26th President, was also one of the preeminent science advocates of his day, and his dedication to AMNH helped it to become the renowned educational institution it is today. The museum’s cartoon image paints a picture of Roosevelt dressed for adventure, looking a bit like a precursor to Ron Swanson, the beloved man’s man of TV’s Parks and Recreation. This is a sharp contrast to the aloof, unrelatable scientists we normally see in popular media: The Big Bang Theory’s awkward Sheldon, Star Trek’s unemotional Dr. Spock, and the quintessential mad scientist, Dr. Frankenstein.

This human element to the Roosevelt project got me thinking about the ways in which we talk about science in museums: while we discuss abstract scientific concepts, compare taxidermied specimens, or study dinosaur tooth morphology, we rarely talk about the people who have devoted their lives to giving us our scientific knowledge – the scientists! As a result, science is sometimes dehumanized and assumed to be a body of distinct and unchanging knowledge that comes directly from dense textbooks…and the scientists themselves can easily be reduced to a stereotype of a socially awkward geek in a labcoat.

But as any scientist will tell you, this couldn’t be further from the truth! Science is not handed down from on high; it’s done every day by real people with real lives, families, and hobbies. They drink beer with their friends after work, walk their dogs, and watch Netflix on the weekends. They get on the subway and go to work every day and try to figure out the fabric of the world: what are we made of, where did we come from, what happens if I put the blue stuff in the green stuff? They get many things about our universe right, but they also spend a lot of time correcting mistakes and revising theories. Many of them (myself included) do enjoy debating the finer points of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s Heisenberg Compensator, but just as many enjoy hiking, baking, watching sports, reading existentialist literature, and any number of other decidedly unscientific activities. Scientists – they’re just like us!

So how do museums fit into all this? I would propose three main reasons for the informal public science education that museum educators do:

  1. Increasing awareness of scientific issues in the general public
  2. Increasing interest in scientific careers in children and teens
  3. Increasing public support for science initiatives and scientific policy issues

It is these last two points that would most benefit from a discussion of scientists rather than just science in museums. The more we humanize the people who do science, the more we can relate to scientific topics, connect with the people who make science their living, and maybe even see ourselves doing science. Personally, my love of science began with my childhood love of dinosaurs, but I don’t remember knowing much about how scientists learn about dinosaurs or where fossils come from. Imagine if alongside its exhibit on Sue the T. Rex, The Field Museum had an exhibit about Sue Hendrickson, the paleontologist who found her. The thousands of children who come visit Sue could then understand how we find dinosaurs and imagine their future selves digging up dinosaurs for a career!

In essence, this is the power of AMNH’s Roosevelt campaign. Through the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial exhibit, the interactive website, and especially the “Theodore Outdoor” photo contest, the museum has brought an important science advocate to life in a way that makes his work relevant to a new generation. I’d love to see other science museums take the lead in connecting visitors with Charles Darwin, Rosalind Franklin, or Isaac Newton, proving that science is a living, breathing entity done by humans, not a dusty old textbook of facts. It’s a sweet spot to hit between science and history, but interdisciplinary exhibits and programs can often be among the most powerful ones, building bridges to bring visitors closer to both topics. Let’s get out there and make our scientists household names!

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