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Science in Museums: It’s Not So Bad To Not Get The Big Idea

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on May 22, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Cira Brown,

This past Sunday, I visited the Museum of Science to see the new exhibit entitled “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life in Ancient Times”. Admittedly, it’s a topic I don’t know much about, which makes it difficult to evaluate how the exhibition presented the material. However, the experience made for a good opportunity to assess learning in a museum from my own standpoint – and I realized something interesting. While the artifacts were stunning and the exhibition beautifully crafted, I emerged from my time in the exhibit without a clear idea of what the objective of the exhibition was. What I mean by this is that despite all of the information in each panel, I was unable to construct a larger understanding of the topic at hand – in short, the big idea, save for a vague larger appreciation for the historical significance of the discovery and preservation efforts.

When I visit an exhibit, it’s usually apparent to me what the “take-away” learning objectives are – the label text, artifacts and interactives all acting as scaffolds to support a predetermined goal. I was unable to discern objectives from this exhibit, as the labels were informative, but did not focus too heavily on any particular aspect. I was expecting to find conflicting theories about the origin and meaning the scrolls, each with their respective academic arguments for and against each theory. Similarly, I expected to be presented with detailed explanations of preservation and restoration efforts. Instead, the exhibition mainly focused on providing context about the era in which the scrolls were written, which in and of itself was a tremendous task. Due to the scrolls unknown provenance and inconclusive assertions about the authors’ motivations, I understand the need to be ambiguous, especially given the “official” status that is bestowed upon the museum exhibit.

Nonetheless, I certainly wouldn’t say this say this exhibit failed, and I should note that I did not participate in the audio tour, which may have remedied some of this confusion. Jumping into an exhibit about a topic I knew little about was challenging and left me with a lot of questions – when I went home I downloaded a book and watched a documentary on the topic as well. The exhibit, then, was successful in that it sparked further research and interest. But in the museum, in the whirlwind of information, I felt fairly lost. I’m curious to know if this alienated visitors instead of empowering them.As I reflect on my time on Sunday, I’ve decided that this “lost” feeling isn’t as negative at it appears. I certainly wasn’t frustrated in the exhibit. If something is challenging, the consequential challenge for the curator and exhibit developer is to translate the topic without making it intimidating or isolating, and I wouldn’t characterize the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit as either. I think it’s okay to not understand everything, perhaps even major things, or have an expectation that visitors will meet those educational objectives in bullet form. It brings to mind the work of art museum educators and the valuable discussions that can be created from visual observation – even if the participants do not know the “hidden” or “true” meanings of the artwork, context or symbols contained within. After this initial engagement with an object or concept, will visitors be more receptive to internalizing other meanings? I believe so – and this starting point is inquiry.

Science museums espouse “exploration”, and fostering exploration within a conceptual topic is a difficult experience to design. The science exhibit developer can emulate an experiment to allow visitors to explore particular phenomena, which are a tried-and-true for science exhibitions. The aforementioned impetus for inquiry is usually explicitly stated in label text. However, are there other, non-interactive, non-explicit ways to mentally explore a topic? What about the progression and formation of an idea, particularly a scientific theory? Like the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls or any historical topic, scientific narratives cannot always be summed up in a succinct manner.

My first foray into exhibit development took the form of an exploratory digital exhibition on one of those tricky narratives: the scientific development of early 20th-century physics and the subsequent development of atomic weaponry. The context needed to present the topic is immense, both on a scientific and historic scale: quantum mechanics plus the global affairs that resulted in two world wars. This project addressed many of the difficulties in fostering exploration that I’ve described here, and, in my next blog post, I will discuss various educational methods to confront these “tricky” topics.

Also, I’d be curious to know what others who saw the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit thought of it!

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