FINAL BROWN BAG OF THE YEAR!
“Moving Beyond Expert Assumptions: How Audience Research and Advocacy Changed Our Approach to Climate Science”
Jean Franczyk, Director of Learning, National Museums of Science and Industry, UK, Science Museum, London
“Climate Change.” Controversial. Politically sensitive. Crucially important. Museums are places wherein such delicate subjects can be dealt with, mooted, discussed: agoras for the contemporary world. They should be able to engage with subjects so important, but need to retain some sense of themselves as discursive spaces, places wherein knowledges are not only transmitted, but constructed and shared.
The Science Museum, as an internationally renowned institution, filled with expertise, is perfectly placed to deal with climate change. However, as Jean pointed out, that expertise should be tempered with a deepened understanding of audiences and their understandings. This is particularly the case with topics so emotionally and socially charged as climate change. Visitor studies and audience advocacy can, for a modest cost, generate a hugely beneficial return, as the Science Museum has found out. Their experience, Jean believes, holds lessons for institutions beyond the scientific realm, and thus we were lucky that she was so willing to share it with us.
Since 2002, the SM has been putting on small exhibitions related to climate change. Public interest in the topic peaked in around 2007, but by 2009, stories in the media about the veracity of some of the scientific evidence was building a socio-cultural environment of cynicism and boredom. In the same year, the Copenhagen UN Climate Change Conference took place, and the Museum exhibited ‘Prove It!’, which invited the visitors to explore the evidence behind the debates. Initially, it was thought that this exhibition could provide the foundation for future projects within the gallery space, which might perhaps focus on how we humans might change our behaviour and how science might apply its technological know-how to reducing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere whilst bringing new clean energy sources to market. However, there were a number of problems with such a supposition. Given the atmosphere of cynicism which was abounding at the time, and the saturation of the media with the subject, they were concerned that the audience would be irritated and bored by the experience, that they wouldn’t trust the information and gain little from the experience. In that sense, I suppose ‘Prove It!’, with its debate like, investigatory structure, can be said to have caught the Zeitgeist: but as Jean noted, it was, in fact, too dichotomized, too full of debate and containing too little room for information.
The question, then, is how to balance these issues. How do you construct an exhibition around this problematic subject which the audience trust, understand, but do not consider dull and preachy at one and the same time? It’s a big ask, and this is where the importance of visitor research really comes to the fore.
In order to create a product which people enjoy, understand and can learn from, it is obviously critical in learning what it is that they already know, the media that they use and understand, the technical languages which they do and do not speak, and the subjects with which they are will speak. Of course, it’s impossible to get a holistic vision of everyone – we’re all so different – but that does not devalue the role of audience research and advocacy in gaining as much of that information as possible.
To that end, then, the NMSI conducted reviews of the literature related to previous exhibitions on the subject, took focus groups and interviews. From this research, the advocacy group at the learning team constructed a general “Visitor Mental Model” of climate change causes. This simple, diagrammatic structure highlighted both what the audiences, broadly speaking, knew, and the terminologies and concepts which they did not, and was used to enable the museum to construct an exhibition which translated expertise into a clear, understandable, but discursive space. Tested, before ‘publication,’ by prototype observations and testing, ‘Atmosphere: Exploring Climate Science’ opened in December 2010.
The aim of the SM was to create an immersive, object rich experience, in which the environment could be visitor controlled, and in which the information presented could be extended through paratextual elements such as museum literature and websites. It seems that, with ‘Atmosphere’, they have achieved something akin to this, for it integrates expert advice into an interactive, content rich environment which the visitors are invited to explore. Media responses to the gallery have highlighted how it has made the subject interesting once more, and the use of the website and its games has exceeded expectations.
But there are problems, Jean admits. Whilst it is a beautiful space, there are a number of didactic elements within it, which could prove problematic for those seeking a very open and discursive approach. However, being the controversial soul that I am, I have to say that, depending upon its location and extent, a little bit of self-aware, clearly apparent didacticism, can be very beneficial – people do, of course, want information. It’s how, when, and to what extent you use that information that matters. And admittedly, too, it’s difficult to define how biased or otherwise that information might be: but again, I think information is always biased, and that perhaps there is much to be said for the simple appellation of an authorial marker. In defining the creator or creators of a space, we can countermand omniscient, but absent ‘Authority’, and take human command of the situation. Perhaps, in this way, we can increase trust. The fact that the Museum has also allowed different voices to come into the space, in the interventions and outreach of the three year Climate Changing Events programme – including one in which the visitor gets to dress up as a cockroach – and the constantly updated information which is available in the gallery and online, already suggests that such obvious polyvocality is possible.
But I should counter my digressions here, and return to the main point – the work of the audience advocacy and research team. Many things were learned from their work, some of its impacts, perhaps, more obvious than others. Clearly, without the audience research a very different exhibition, perhaps less successful, would have resulted. In conducting the research, the Museum found out how different museum ‘experts’ are from their visitors, how important the small investment shifting this understanding can be in the creation of a useful space. For a modest 3% of the £4million budget, they have made possible the generation of intellectual and social experiences which are beyond financial costing. Such work is valuable also in the development of exhibition design strategies and processes, and for the development of a more ethnographic understanding of museum operational processes.
The research, as hopefully the summative evaluation of the project will show is valuable in other ways: it allows sponsors to see that their money was well spent, and to create a ‘virtuous circle’ of production and funding. But it also enables institutions to take risks, to understand where they can push the boundaries, and how successful such gambles might possibly be. Thus do institutions move forward.
Exhibitions are not singular. Built in a ‘third space,’ somewhere between the physical maker and experience, they are not singular. Like artworks, writings, literature, novels, poetry, paintings and the theatre, the exhibition is becomes discursive. In recognizing their status as elements within the tissues, as ‘scriptors’ rather than Authors, museums can, in fact, become empowered. It is time, then, to pay attention to the reader: and, equally as importantly, to the museum-makers own positions as a readerly entity.