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Science in Museums: The Intersection of Art and Science

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on March 20, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Catherine Sigmond

Although I work in a science museum, I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to work and debate with colleagues from a range of disciplines at Tufts, particularly those in the art world.

Lately it’s got me thinking- why is there such a distinct separation between the arts and the sciences?

As a product of a multi-disciplinary education (I double-majored in History and Biological Anthropology and minored in French linguistics in college), this is a question that is constantly on my mind. And the more time I spend working in science museums and interacting with art museum professionals at Tufts, the more regarding, presenting, and teaching art and science as separate disciplines makes less and less sense to me.

Think about the common phrases “right-brained” and “left-brained.” Those deemed to be more “right-brained” are generally regarded as creative and innovative, while those seen as “left-brained” are viewed as being more analytical and logical. In other words, the creative right-brained folk are supposedly more artistic, while the left-brained, by contrast, are more scientific.

This division between people’s capabilities in art and science permeates several aspects of our lives- how we view our potential career options, what household tasks we think we will be able to complete successfully, the hobbies we pursue, the way we gage our ability to succeed in certain subjects at school, and a whole host of others.

It’s clear that most people assume that the ways in which artists and scientists view the world are inherently different from one another. And museums haven’t entirely escaped this trend. More often than not, art museums and science museums tend not to be in dialogue; seemingly assuming that the types of content they aim to teach visitors are too distinct from one another to be reconciled.

But if we disregard content and instead examine the ways of thinking that each type of institution seeks to impart upon their visitors, many of the overlaps between the two disciplines become abundantly clear.

When I go to work, staff and volunteers are trained to teach visitors that:

“Science is an activity: It is a way of asking questions and learning about the world that involves collecting objective evidence through observation and investigation, finding patterns in the evidence, and using these patterns to make predictions and develop testable explanations about the world we are a part of.”

And many art museum educators use Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) to facilitate structured, open-ended discussions where visitors are asked to “look carefully at works of art, talk about what they find, back up their ideas with evidence, listen to and consider the view of others, and discuss many possible interpretations.”

Despite some small differences, these ways of thinking overlap immensely. Both ask visitors to spend time investigating and making observations about what they see, challenge them to discuss these observations with their peers, make predictions about the cause of their observations, support their ideas with evidence, attempt to explain or interpret their ideas, and keep an open mind to a multitude of possibilities. Therefore although the arts and sciences appear to be markedly different, in reality they both rely on some of the same core values.

So why is there so often a disconnect between the artistic and scientific processes in the public eye? Why are kids often made to feel that they must choose one or the other, and what can museums do to change this?

I believe that museums, art and science alike, should begin by recognizing that the skills they are trying to teach are really one and the same. Despite the commonly held notion that scientists are not creative and that artists are not analytical, nothing could be further from the truth. If you work at an art or science museum, why not provide programming, develop exhibitions, or create interpretations that help visitors of all ages explore the relationship between the two fields and begin to understand how they overlap? Both art and science museums can and should play a role in combatting the notion that students will ultimately have to choose between one discipline or the other, and in doing so inspire truly creative design thinking.

Because what happens at the intersection of art and science? The answer is simple: wonder.

As Jason Silva puts it, it is at this intersection, “this intellectual collision of seemingly disparate bedfellows, that something magical and unexpected happens: new patterns emerge; new connections are forged between previously unconnected ideas and inspiration reigns.”

Of course, there are many institutions that are already doing amazing things to help the world realize that art and science are not really so different, and that neither field should be intimated by the other. One of my favorites is the Exploratorium, which employs “Staff Artists” and “Staff Scientists” and helps visitors explore everything from the science and art of severe storm visualization to the art and science of listening and sound. And art exhibitions that incorporate living things such as the upcoming CUT/PASTE/GROW exhibition in Brooklyn (and their recent crowd-sourced bioart mosaic at SXSW Create) are inspiring new approaches to aesthetic design and ecology.

But this trend must not stay limited to a small number of institutions and venues. Art and science museums should rethink their relationship with one another, perhaps embarking on new partnerships to help visitors explore the relationship between their respective fields and encourage innovation and creativity through a diverse variety of outlets.

As Mae Jemison (the first African-American woman in space, a medical school graduate, and a near-professional dancer) claims in what is possibly my all-time favorite TED talk,

“the difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin, even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.”

How can museums blend art and science to help foster this creativity? I wonder.

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