If you’re reading this, you probably scanned the QR code on one of my flyers around campus. Here, you can learn more about whatever I wrote on that flyer, and much more about science, museums, and activism. I hope you find it useful and interesting!
This site functions as a guide (for me and for you) to investigating the relationship between science/natural history museums and activism. It takes two main branches (as you can see in the links below) –into the field of science studies, which serves as a background for science museum work, and into looking directly at museums themselves.
Most of the text on this website is from a [[science museum best practices document->https://docs.google.com/document/d/1cq4-YwPdqoLseMD0sI-xaF0Wk3PKYufYUy_FQni25TM/edit?usp=sharing]] I wrote as a sort of capstone for my undergraduate work, and throughout it I link to resources that are useful, important, and interesting.
[[intro to science studies->science studies]]
aka: why do we do science the way we do? what ways is it harmful? what other possibilities are there?
[[museums, access, & equity->museums]]
aka: are science museums really for everyone? who are they for? how can we improve them?
If you'd like a more straightforward list of topics and resources, click the sitemap link at the bottom of the page. If you have thoughts you'd like to share, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Science is as old as humanity and as everyday as language. As such a deeply human practice, it is never free from human bias–no matter how much we try to remove ourselves from the process, we are always present in it. What we choose to study, who carries it out, how it is funded, and how it is published are all important elements of the process. When we consider these, we can continue to widen the scope of our gaze at a scientific study–where was it carried out, and why? Who is there, and what is their relationship to the project? The scientific practices we pursue today are based in those that developed in colonial nations, with no consideration for the harm done in the proces (see: James Cook voyaging to the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus, botanical expeditions as tools of empire). While of course our scientific practices have changed, it is still necessary to consider these questions, especially as these practices were developed in a way that obscures them.
From my experience as an astronomer, I know that it is extremely common for scientists to not consider these questions or to dismiss them as beneath their consideration. Consider Mauna Kea in Hawaii, [[the site of several large research telescopes and also a mountain that is particularly sacred to Native Hawaiians.->https://drive.google.com/file/d/1mH4ZnWChrcWRmz0Q4Fh5DBEwxDJP_tz9/view?usp=sharing]] Many astronomers were only forced to learn about this as protests erupted against the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) as construction was slated to begin in 2014. Since then, resistance against the telescope has been concerted and continuous, and many astronomers have looked on it with disdain, accusing Native Hawaiians of anti-science sentiment and framing the fight as one of science vs. religion or science vs. culture. But as we know, science is never separate from culture. This is not science (which is separate from and superior to culture) vs culture (which is simple and superstitious), it is culture vs. culture–the culture of largely white institutions vs. the culture of a colonized and oppressed people.
Obviously, I am making no effort to hide my position on the debate over the TMT, but my larger point is that it is irresponsible and harmful to pretend as if science is somehow above and separate from the rest of society. If we think of science as occurring in an isolated bubble, conducted by magically impartial practitioners, we have an incomplete understanding of how science works in the world.
Some scientists have proposed a change to this: Deboleena Roy has [[argued for a new scientific method->https://drive.google.com/file/d/102LDlJltYVAyinvqHohLsslqhUrrGHWm/view?usp=sharing]], one that makes explicit the ways researchers came to their questions and their goals in undertaking the project. She argues that as the scientific method stands now, all this information is below the surface in the hypothesis, but that it would serve the goal of strong objectivity (as well as making science and scientists more accountable and transparent) to explicitly acknowledge their preconceptions and goals.
[[Go deeper->more science studies]] into astronomy, colonialism, and the future.
[[Click here->sci studies reading list]] for some more of the projects and papers that got me into science studies.Astronomy is often referred to as "the oldest science," but few of us–even among astronomers–really reckon with what that means. The night sky is a vital part of the natural world, and as such has been studied and loved by people since people first existed.
In 2017, researchers [[published->https://drive.google.com/file/d/1vVM3TqgSl11xtExLu6-r3RTtolt8-lyH/view?usp=sharing]] new findings on the well-known rock art sites in the Monte Alegre hills of Brazil. In Serra da Lua, the longest continuous sequence of rock art in the area, they found images that seem to depict a sophisticated system of astronomy–a depiction of a zodiac-like annual star chart, as well as a depiction of a comet alongside a solar eclipse. This latter image was carbon-dated, and found to be concurrent with hunter-gatherer societies known to inhabit the area, a solar eclipse that would have been visible from this location during that period of time, and a perigee of what we now call Halley’s Comet. For much of the history of archaeology, it has been assumed that humanity progressed in a linear fashion from unsophisticated, mobile cultures to sophisticated, settled cultures–this study provides evidence that this is untrue.
Science is a cultural practice, and as such, many sciences have long cultural histories of how they are used by people in a particular place. Polynesians, for example, developed an astronomy that combined with their knowledge of marine life and oceanography to create a [[sophisticated navigational system->http://www.hokulea.com/education-at-sea/polynesian-navigation/polynesian-non-instrument-wayfinding/]] that allowed them to live their lives as much at sea as on land. The scientific institutions and practices that are recognized and esteemed now are also cultural artifacts–they are a set of tools and practices that help us learn about the world around of us, and not in and of themselves an ultimate truth and the be-all-end-all of what science is, will be, or has ever been.
You may well wonder how this can be implemented specifically in museums–why I've chosen to make a significant portion of my museum site/manifesto/guide/etc about a relatively obscure academic discipline. Using these principles in museums may help guide the creation of exhibits as museum staff imagine how visitors can engage with the material. Everyday people engaging with the natural world around them need not be made to feel inferior to a far-off class of experts–many people already see science this way, as an intimidating and fundamentally foreign world. Instead, museums can operate on the principle that part of science learning is simply engaging with the world around you–learning to recognize the plants in your area, or remembering that the new moon rises at sunrise and the full moon rises at sunset. When instead of being a sign of sophistication, science is part of being a human and engaging with the world, it is something that everyone can participate in, in whatever ways they are able.
Museums, especially science and natural history museums, occupy a unique position between research and public knowledge. They are connected to and often house the forefront of scientific knowledge creation, yet reach a wide audience in a meaningful, personal way.
Because of this, they have a particular set of responsibilities: to [[make science accessible->sci museum accessibility]], to educate people on [[how science happens->how science happens]], and in doing so, to present a responsible vision of how science relates (and should relate) to the rest of the world.
These responsibilities are exceedingly important in all contexts, but especially when museums present material on [[scientific controversy->controversy]] or issues of societal urgency–think harmful uses of science, or [[climate change->sustainability]].
Because science and natural history museums often feel less stuffy and formal than some other museums (especially prestigious art museums), it can be easy to assume that they are naturally inclusive. But these museums, like all public institutions, have a complicated relationship with the public they serve.
There are concrete exclusionary practices and facets of these museums. The prices of admission and merchandise, accessibility from public transit, lack of signage in or staff that speak multiple languages–all these and more [[actively prevent->https://drive.google.com/file/d/1iM5wI-m7iDXMeVbpGjUCIA_TT_zvW5Tt/view?usp=sharing]] people from attending museums and exclude them when they do attend.
But it is too simplistic to say that once these barriers are removed, then museums will be accessible and welcoming to all. The exclusion of minoritized and marginalized people in museum settings is [[encoded into->https://drive.google.com/file/d/1bvYdidnPfGe2kIEykgLSQtX0jUX-jDMF/view?usp=sharing]] the way staff are trained, the way exhibits are set up, and the way visitors act.
After the launch of Sputnik, Dwight Eisenhower declared it a national priority to create more American scientists in order to compete with Russia and make the United States a scientific powerhouse. Today, especially when we discuss underrepresented demographics in the sciences, we see an emphasis on a “pipeline” to scientific careers that starts from childhood. Our current societal model of engaging with science places a large amount of emphasis on funneling children into a track that will spit out scientists. Many science studies scholars have written on the many flaws of the pipeline model, but even without delving far into their scholarship, the pipeline model is simply a bleak way of looking at science. It tells us that working in science and pursuing your childhood passions means a great deal of “sticking it out” and “powering through” and only having one predetermined destination instead of embracing a multitude of possibilities. It also places fault on students who divert from the pipeline, instead of encouraging examination of the structures that often push them out.
If a science museum welcomes people of all ages, encourages curiosity, and brings science to the wider public, then it should not primarily function on a basis of funneling children into careers. That goal directly comes from Cold War paranoia, and is detrimental to museums’ efforts to encourage engagement with science on multiple levels and wider scientific literacy.
Museums must be conscious of their relationship to the communities around them and In Fall 2021, I spoke to Melissa Kennedy, the Manager of Exhibit Experiences of the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington. The Burke received materials to show Life in One Cubic Foot, a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian. This exhibit is a fantastic example of science pedagogy and of a traveling exhibit that incorporates local information from each site it visits. While preparing the exhibition, the team at the Burke came across exhibit text describing a scientific expedition to the Pacific, studying and cataloguing marine life. The language in the official text brought up an image of a very 1800s-style scientific exhibition, one where scientists would give organisms European names and avoid or dismiss Indigenous people and their knowledge. But when looking into the expedition itself, the Burke staff found that the lead scientists had carried out in-depth work with Indigenous peoples, making sure to record their knowledge about and relationships with the ecosystem–learning from them with the apparent intention to act as a conduit for their knowledge. But none of this in-depth, interdisciplinary work made it into the exhibit text!
There is an assumption among many people working in science communication that the details of a study are unnecessary or too boring to include in their work, and so it is better to present results without explaining the process. And certainly that idea has some merit–technical details can be confusing, and results can be communicated and interpreted without giving a detailed account of scientific methodology. But this speaks to a challenge and a need in science communication. In addition to explaining the results of a study in an approachable way, we must be able to at least give a general explanation of the research process at a similarly approachable level.
Museums often use controversy as a way to make exhibits more exciting, yet they are usually not very good at exhibiting those controversies or exhibiting controversial material. I do not have a magical recipe to make a responsible, engaging exhibit on controversial science that will make everyone happy–such a recipe does not exist. But in my research, I have encountered the common downfalls museums encounter when exhibiting controversy, and some approaches that ensure the museum acts in a responsible, pedagogically sound manner.
Many debates over museum pedagogy in the last several decades have centered around the dilemma of what balance to strike between treating visitors like empty vessels for information and expecting visitors to bring so much of their thoughts and learning to the exhibit that it begins to feel like a class. Some museum professionals argue that when communicating controversial science, dialogue is the way forward, that holding seminar-like events should be the future of museums and the future of public science education. But this approach excludes the majority of science and natural history museum attendees, who do not come to the museum with pre-prepared notes, and who expect from the museum an experience that will be engaging and educational, not academically rigorous.
Adopting dialogue as the basis for presenting controversial science also opens up a slew of other questions. What does the museum put up for debate? Who does it invite to these seminars? What kinds of comments and contributions are visitors allowed to make? How can we ensure that a museum panel/seminar/dialogue event on climate justice doesn’t end up as a venue for debating whether or not climate change is real?
Even when not basing our approach on dialogue, many museums have run into difficulty when exhibiting material on scientific controversy. Because museums are (obviously) extremely public, and because many museum exhibits remain on display for several years at a time, people involved in scientific controversy are reluctant to contribute anything to the exhibit in question that will lead to backlash against them or the possibility that their opinion will become outdated. Many museums also encounter difficulty with accurately giving an impression of controversy or uncertainty. They may attempt, for example, to communicate to visitors that there is no one correct answer to a question, but may include an interactive puzzle game in the exhibit, that in its very nature as a puzzle game leads visitors to search for the one correct answer.
So how do we strike this balance? And how do we acknowledge controversy, especially in science? This brings us to meaning-making. As a museum, we should not ask our visitors to bring us facts about the subject of the exhibit, and we should not ignore the fact that they are coming to us with their own experiences and perspectives. It follows, then, that we should provide information for the visitors and provide them with opportunities to make personal meaning out of that information.
This can also be useful in making the museum more welcoming to visitors of various backgrounds. While science and natural history museums are widely perceived to be more friendly and less stuffy than, say, traditional art museums, they still often have implicit rules about what is an acceptable way to engage with exhibitry and what meaning visitors should make out of it. A study from 2014 relates accounts of people from minoritized groups in London visiting science museums and science centers–places that they did not usually attend or had never visited:
<blockquote>[P]articipants from the Asian group recognized fish from Bangladesh, told stories about fishing as children in other countries, and shared fish recipes. Similarly, in the Latin American group, Ignacio [pseudonym] told stories about scorpions in Colombia while looking at scorpion specimens and shared language skills with his daughters while looking at plant exhibits…
The most striking example of cross-cultural meaning making occurred during the visit with the Sierra Leonean group…one participant recognized a bird among a display of several animals…Seeing the birds prompted some of the Sierra Leonean participants to perform the ceremonial dance for a rite of passage involved with hunting and eating the birds on display. The participants appeared to enjoy themselves, dancing, singing, laughing, and talking.</blockquote>
After the visit, however, the Sierra Leonean participants felt embarrassed about how they had acted, aware that their singing, dancing, and laughing was against the implicit rules of the otherwise-quiet gallery, full of mostly white people musing over animal specimens. Although the Asian and Latin American visitors did not report the same feelings of embarrassment about their methods of meaning making, it was clear through the English-only text present in all the museums that the institutions did not anticipate visitors connecting with the exhibits in this way.
This, obviously, is a deviation from the conversation about exhibiting controversial science. But as I mentioned at the opening of this document, practices that serve the museum and its visitors well in all situations become especially important when addressing issues of controversy, access, and equity.
In exhibiting controversial science and expanding access both, it is important that museums acknowledge and invite visitors to consider the knowledge and perspectives they bring to the museum yet don’t turn the exhibits into classes. Instead, they should encourage multiple ways of engaging with material, especially as visitors’ comfort levels may differ when it comes to seeing themselves as active participants in museum exhibits.
[[When I spoke with Melissa Kennedy->how science happens]], we discussed these issues and explored the approaches that the Burke takes when dealing with them. There are some things, such as the fact of anthropogenic climate change and the importance of the rights of Indigenous people, that the museum holds as true and non-negotiable. Putting these up for debate or presenting them as uncertain would serve no one except those seeking to do harm. Instead, the visitors are given the opportunity to make personal connections to and meaning out of the facts presented, and are prompted with ways the exhibit may connect to their personal experiences. The museum should acknowledge that visitors come with many different backgrounds and experiences, and should not expect them to bring anything more to the exhibit, especially as the expectation of a particular level of knowledge could make visitors feel alienated or condescended to, no matter how that expected level relates to their own actual level. This also leaves us with the second conclusion from Melissa Kennedy: don’t make people feel stupid!If we are committed to presenting science in context and emphasizing science as part of society, then climate action must involve more than reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Following that logic, it is irresponsible to portray fights over climate change only in terms of abstracted debates over renewable energy.
Presenting a more complete view of the climate fight may, in fact, help museums reach visitors. When presented with lofty arguments about the transition to renewable energy, visitors may feel threatened, especially if they work in oil or coal. By focusing on the “just transition”–i.e. a transition to more sustainable environmental practices that emphasizes climate justice–the museum considers its visitors and, as emphasized above, acknowledges their life experiences and perspectives while not compromising its principles and what it knows to be true.
[[Museums should also consider their place in the larger fight against climate change.->http://thenaturalhistorymuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/31-35-Feature-3.pdf]] While many debates about the future of the planet occur on large stages, some of the most urgent flash points are fights against pipelines and environmental destruction, most of which are led by Indigenous people protecting water and land. Who will present their stories? Who will conserve the artifacts (whatever form they take–physical, informational, narrative) of their struggle? Museums already have a wealth of Native artifacts–will they use them to support Native people today?
It is [[irresponsible->https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ZI_7KcRkgi3vqgySMENa0fVwteWD6yu8/view?usp=sharing]] for musesums to pretend as if they are neutral and detached from social issues. If a museum is engaging with climate change, it cannot remain attached only to the past, and must use its resources to contribute to progress against climate change in a comprehensive way, and not simply with the mechanics of greenhouse gas.
[[more science studies]]
[[sci museum accessibility]]
[[how science happens]]
**Other references/recommended reading**
History and future of astronomy:
- [[AN IMAGE TO CARRY THE WORLD WITHIN IT: PERFORMANCE
CARTOGRAPHY AND THE SKIDI STAR CHART->https://drive.google.com/file/d/1OKrpY2CmlzuKcU6eu57IfOzlOReOd9MI/view?usp=sharing]]
Article on a star chart made by Skidi Pawnee peoples. Covers the ways that cartography, including star mapping, is a culturally specific practice, and not neutral/objective like we often assume it to be.
- [[Whitening the Sky->https://arxiv.org/pdf/2001.11527.pdf]]
How light pollution acts as an arm of colonialism, and access to dark skies is an important elemnt of indigenous sovereignty.
- [[Mountains of Controversy->https://drive.google.com/file/d/1mH4ZnWChrcWRmz0Q4Fh5DBEwxDJP_tz9/view?usp=sharing]]
This is a doctoral thesis, so it's quite a read, but if you want to learn more about Mauna Kea and the conflict over Indigenous rights and the Thirty-Meter Telescope, I'd definitely recommend giving it a skim. Focuses primarily on the Haole astronomers and their arguments, as it's a science studies paper on scientific institutions.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm
The following two essays are in the book Science Exhibitions: Curation and Design. I wouldn't recommend them as introductions to museums and controversy necessarily, but they're useful reads.
- Exhibition Experiments: Publics, Politics, and Scientific Controversy.
- The Exhibition and Beyond: New and Controversial Science in the Museum.
email me at email@example.comScience studies is one of those fields where the further you go into it, the deeper it goes! Here's a starter kit of sorts:
[[This->https://freerads.org/science-scope-full]] is a fantastic comic that helped introduce me to the world of science studies. Guiding questions include: is science really objective? Why do diversity and context matter in science? Where do our scientific practices come from?
(After you read that, check out the rest of Free Radicals, who in their own words are “an activist collective dedicated to creating a more socially just, equitable, and accountable science.”)
Why might it be good to make science not just belong to experts? - chapter of The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Pretty dense read, but a good one!
How is the very way we think about the world around us a function of culture? - paper by Maori scholar Tuhiwai Smith on research done by colonists