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The future of science exhibitions in museums

By Mark Carnall, on 21 September 2012

Last Thursday I was invited along to talk at a panel about the future of science exhibitions in museums at Imperial College’s 21st Anniversary celebration of the MSc Science Communication course. I was joined by Alison Boyle, Curator of Astronomy & Modern Physics from the Science Museum and James Peto, Senior Curator at the Wellcome Collection and chaired by Rachel Souhami, Lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial. Preparing for the panel discussion caused some mild pontificating on my part so I thought I’d put some of the thoughts conjured from my crystal ball up here for everyone to see.

 What will the future of science exhibitions look like? I couldn’t help but think that technology is going to be a big part of it but disappointingly a lot of it isn’t particularly revolutionary as museums have a lot of catching up to do with the technology used in day to day lives. A variety of factors contribute to this. The bureaucracy of  institutions like universities and museums can be very slow to adopt and embed new technology and there’s a whole load of boring aspects to consider, copyright, administration, where it will be hosted and who “owns the information”.

A montage showing the Grant Museum twitter, blog and youtube

Multimodal Exhibitions. Increasingly video, images, animations, podcasts, tweets and blogs are becoming a way to extend the exhibition beyond the physical space. At the moment some of these media can feel tacked on or added as an afterthought to exhibitions. In the future these will all be featured as standard. Also, in my opinion, social networking is best used to highlight different aspects of exhibition content. We’ve found that our online audiences want to hear the personal voices rather than the institutional one that exhibition text is normally written in. Currently, museums are finding their feet with some of these technologies. I don’t think twitter really works as just another way of broadcasting event listings and I think that the new Darwin Centre Phase 2 is one (of many) examples of an exhibition that perhaps does too much with technology distracting from the exhibition content.

A Legacy For Exhibitions. It drives me bonkers that science exhibitions don’t have much of a legacy beyond the physical thing. So much work goes into the production of an exhibition and increasingly exhibitions are respected as a form of publication but only the big blockbusters normally come with a catalogue that preserves the exhibtion. They get taken down because they take up a lot of physical space but there’s no reason why they can’t live on electronically. It seems absurd in the 21st Century that you have to visit a physical space at a predefined limited time or completely miss out and obviously it means that it is harder for scholars, exhibition makers and the public to reference exhibitions that vanish once they end (note to self this is something we here at UCL need to get better at).

The Internet is A Friend Not An Enemy Or Competitor. Museums are still wary of the internet but that’s where people go to find information. Avoiding it or pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t drive people to come to your physical exhibition because that’s the only way they can experience it. They just never come because they haven’t heard about it. Don’t be afraid to link to wikipedia. We all use it, we all know the limitations but your museum staff will never be able to keep up with the quantity and breadth of information on it.

Treat Your Website Like Your Physical Space. There are so many hard and fast rules for exhibition construction- how big should the text be, where’s the best place to put the shop, how do we signpost the exhibition from the museum/building/tube station, which way should people go around it and where’s the best place to put the big/gruesome/key/most valuable specimen. Unfortunately online there’s a lot of variability when it comes to exhibition web presence. Are websites only useful for listing an exhibition? No, they  have the potential for so much more. If you can find the exhibition section in the first place.

A series of questions taken from QRator

Civic And Social Engagement Are No Longer Restricted To Small Groups. Exhibitions like our award winning QRator installation are the beginnings of a hopefully exciting trend to build exhibitions where participation and engagement are embedded. ‘Co-curation’ is a term that is banded around readily but rarely is an exhibition co-curated with the public truly a joint enterprise. How can we use technology in exhibitions to meet the expectation of visitors, put the visitor voice on a par with the museum voice and keep objects as the focus?

Celebrate the Museum as a Museum. A lot of the above are useful tools to expand the potential of exhibitions but museums shouldn’t lose sight of their unique selling point- objects and the people who know how to work with objects. By all means use technology to promote these but we can’t and shouldn’t be competing with the wide range of science communication professionals out there. Also science and museums are both black boxes. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what they do and how they work. Traditionally we’ve been afraid to show this out of a misplaced incentive to display science and museums as untouchable, apolitical and infallible. It doesn’t do us any favours politically, it is blatantly not true and it doesn’t help demystify science or museums.

That’s my two cents on the future of science exhibitions. Disagree? Have other suggestions? Drop them in the comments and we’ll go from there.

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