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Lessons from Ecsite 2017

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Hello—My name is Tania Wilson and I sit on the contemporary science team at the museum. My role is focused on our partnership and collaborative programme for Manchester Science Festival.

I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s Ecsite conference, the largest science communication conference in Europe, which was hosted by the Natural History and Science Museum of the University of Porto and Ciência Viva Network in Portugal.

The theme of the festival was ‘Life is Everywhere’, which was celebrated, explored and interrogated by over 1,000 delegates across three days of key note speeches, seminars, workshops, talks and debates. The sessions contemplated everything from how science engagement can enliven communities and sow the seeds of global citizenship, to what innovations are simmering behind the scenes of our museums and science centres.

Over the three days, I attended 20 sessions, networking events and socials. Whilst I’d love to tell you everything I came away with, I’ll instead select three highlight sessions to share with you.

1) Touring exhibitions across the world

This session was thought-provoking, as I got an insight into how other museums and science centres across the world approach communicating science through their exhibitions. I was particularly struck by an exhibition developed by the Deutsches Museum called energie.wenden, which explores the themes of environmental compatibility, profitability and social justice. These themes couldn’t be more prominent than they are now, and I really admire the boldness of the exhibition, which firmly places scientific research within a socio-political context.

At the heart of the exhibition is a game where visitors take the role of politicians. As they enter, they are given advice by stakeholders—from influencers to lobbyists—and then proceed into the exhibition and decide on several outcomes after receiving even more ‘expert’ opinions on a range of politically charged topics. Visitors receive feedback at the end of their journey through the exhibition on the outcome of their decisions.

energie.wended exhibition at the Deutsches Museum

The energie.wenden exhibition at the Deutsches Museum. Credit: Deutsches Museum

To me, this exhibition represents the next phase of museum exhibitions, and I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of this style, where the visitor is firmly and rightly in the driving seat.

2) Nina Simon

I was probably one of the only people in the room who hadn’t come across Nina’s work before, so I was particularly inspired after her key note speech at the conference. Nina is Director at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and author of two books: The Participatory Museum and The Art of Relevance. She talked about her work at the Santa Cruz Museum and how she transformed what was a museum on the brink of closure, to a vibrant and thriving community hub for celebrating art, history and everything in between. Her approach really is fresh and innovative, and I highly recommend watching her key note speech:

3) How to communicate the future of science

Lastly, I’d have to pick this session on communicating the future of science as one that sparked the most imagination for me. Aside from the pages and pages of notes I made, I also came away with some tangible action points for myself in the future, which is always a good sign.

The overarching message of the session was to empower visitors to imagine the future through social context and experience, rather than by trying to predict it with technology alone. Tomorrow’s World and its 1969 episode Office of the Future was cited as an example of why this doesn’t work—because the change in social context (i.e. female secretary serving male boss) has been more important than the technology predicted (e.g. automated coffee machine). This might sound obvious, but it’s very easy to miss.

The consensus of participants in the session was that too much of object placement in museums is based on looking to the past, and not enough to the future. The shift that we need is small but significant. We need to focus on the forces of progress, rather than objects themselves because images and objects are fixed, but the imagination can evolve and grow endlessly. We also need to avoid presenting science as final. Instead, we need to critically look at human nature and consider what we can learn from the past to make predictions for the future, rather than basing it on what we could discover.

Conference attendees sat on steps in the sunshine

Reflecting on conference themes in the sun! © Ecsite / MHNC-UP / Ciência Viva; Photographers: Daniel Espírito Santo / João Botas

One final thought following many informal discussions with my European peers that had an inevitable political basis—in a world of fake news and with influential political figures rejecting scientific facts, do museums play a role in telling people when they are wrong? What right, if any, do we have (especially as publicly funded institutions) to do this? And whilst we develop experiences that are sociable and informative in equal measure, do visitors want this from us? Or do they instead come here for a fun, immersive experience that they won’t forget? The answer isn’t black and white, but it’s certainly one we need to be thinking about more and more.

Written by Tania Seher Wilson

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