The First Brown Bag of the Year! New Starts, and New Strategies

Brown Bag 5th October 2011

New Wine Should Be Put Into A New Wineskin”
The Science Communication Policy and new Movements in Japan

Reiji Takayasu
Science Communication Expert, Foundation of Japanese Science Museums

It’s that time of year again, and I’m back in the world of the Attic, bearing New and Wonderful treats from the Box of Brown Bag Delights! I hope you look forward to this semester – we’ve lots of wonderful things in store for you, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we shall enjoy listening to them.

It is an honour, then, to introduce our first brave speaker of the term. Reiji Takayasu, of the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, and Vice President of the Japanese Museum Management Association, (JMMA) was a delight. There are not many Brown Bag sessions where the speaker brings the audience gifts – we each received a toy from the Museum – but I fear that a precedent for such presents may now have been set! Mr. Takayasu seemed hugely pleased to be here – so it is nice to be able to say that we were incredibly pleased to have him, and given that our own Professor Knell considers his institution ‘one of the best natural history and science museums in the world,’ we are truly honoured.

Well, now I’ve stopped admiring my new stag beetle and his little stand, it’s time to get on with the serious academic part of this post.

At the heart of this Brown Bag lay a fascinating discussion of the processes, role and value of ‘Science Communication,’ and the ways in which museums such as Mr. Takayasu’s can contribute to its facilitation. The changing social and economic situation of Japan, in the current world climate, and because of the recent devastating tsunami, has lead to changes in the attitudes towards science communication, and the need for its development. The policy for science communication in Japan has its origins in the 1960s, and since that time it has developed and changed in a number of significant ways. In 1996, a ‘Basic Plan’ for a higher standard in science education was produced, and increasing financial support was given to the field from this point on. In 1999, the UNESCO Conference, ‘Science for the 21st Century: A New Commitment’ proved a turning point in the history of science communication in Japan. Four key themes raised in that conference, (Science for knowledge, knowledge for progress; Science for peace; Science for development; and Science in Society and Science for Society) proved seminal, and have lead to the adoption of policies geared towards literacy and communication, towards dialogic and public facing approaches. Events such as the Science Agora in Tokyo, which has been held since 2006, are superb examples of the ways in which the Japanese government and scientific industries are attempting to reach out to as broad a public as possible.

What, then, is the role of museums in fostering ‘Science and Museum Literacy’? It cannot be a small one – in Japan there are over 8000 museums, and whilst the majority of these are local authority History Museums, a significant number are either dedicated to science, or have scientific elements in their makeup – zoos, botanical gardens and aquariums, for instance, make up a great part of this segment. The role of the museum as facilitator of lifelong learning and education is increasingly understood across the world – the work of Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, who was invited to speak to the Japanese museum community in 2003, has been especially influential in the development of JMMA’s increasing focus upon their communication policies, particularly in regard to science.

Sadly, sciences are often seen as difficult, as exclusionary, and as subjects hard to communicate. The popularity of science, science courses and lessons, as well as museums, took something of a downturn in Japan. This is due in no little part to its teaching methods, which had, over time, become didactic and transmissive. It became important, then, that scientific institutions, and those involved in the development of public scientific literacy, looked to other disciplines for inspiration – and the increasingly popular world of arts education, which uses interactive and constructivist approaches to teaching and learning, proved to be hugely inspirational.

Combining, then, the dialogic and multilogic approaches of arts education with the educational possibilities of museums as espoused by Hooper-Greenhill, Hein, and others, it became possible for new models of communication to be developed. The Museum of Nature and Science has proved to be a fertile testing ground, and one of their main goals is to ‘Design effective exhibitions and to facilitate audience learning that contributes to the public science literacy.’ In fact, their mission itself states that their purpose is ‘to deepen the public appreciation of the earth, life, science and technology, and to encourage people to think about how humankind, the natural world, and science and technology should best relate to each other.’ For an institution to have such an aim is inherently indicative of the importance of communication, and concomitantly of the importance of a holistic approach to the phenomena of the world – natural and cultural.

To achieve this, the Museum has set itself a number of goals, and has implemented a variety of schemes in order to further its aims. Considering the communication activities within the institutions and display spaces, the importance of lifelong learning, and the evaluation and theorization of the system and the plan have been set up as the points towards which they must direct their attention. But how, practically speaking, is this rather wonderful philosophy to be made concrete? How is science communication to be improved in order to heighten public interest and awareness?

In partnership with an astonishing 67 universities across Japan, the museum has developed the Science Communicator Practical Training Programmes. Twice every year, individuals go through a series of classes and tasks, including fundraising and running an engaging ‘Science Café’ for the public, to gain a qualification as an accredited Science Communicator. By the end of this process, they should be able to communicate science and scientific concepts in a responsive, and socially and politically aware way. Thus it is that the NMNS has been able to make a huge leap forward in the development of science literacy – in the public and in its personnel - and has thus contributed to the future of science in Japan. It’s pretty safe to say, I think, that such a model has relevance the world over.

For people who find science intimidating, it’s critical to have someone to communicate it to you well and without being patronising. The same is true, really, for all forms of human existence which we, as museum builders, educators, artists, teachers, contribute to. One of the most important things I think we can all learn from a philosophy which seems prevalent in Japan is that of the holistic nature of worldly relations. No one part of human existence is independent from another – nature, culture, art, engineering, chemistry, biology, poetry and sculpture are all part of this wonderful thing we call the perceivable universe, and to segment them into independent and unrelated parts shows a painful shortsightedness. Understanding the complex, configurational, immersive and interpenetrative nature of phenomena lets us become literate, lets us play, and thus lets us communicate, in languages of being which are richer and more strange than we could have hoped to imagine.


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