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Communicating Science in Museums

It is not uncommon for people to feel anxious about the future. Confusing and often frightening information is coming to them through the media about climate change, artificial intelligence and other challenging issues. People are turning to museums to help them understand what's going on, and what they can do to prepare and participate, said Patricia Ward, a AAAS Fellow and the director of science exhibitions at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI).

Patricia Ward. Credit: J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago


Although engaging the public comes naturally to science museums, the people who work at the best of them never stop thinking of new ways to be clear, comprehensive, authentic and exciting. "We provide topics and experiences to create a context for our audience to imagine how the future will apply to them," said Ward. "We want to give people a sense of agency. Humans are pretty ingenious, and it's our mission at MSI to inspire the inventive genius in everyone. We're all in this world together. Let's shape it together," she said. The MSI staff works hard to offer visitors from all walks of life "a place where you can come and engage in these really important and fascinating topics."


One way MSI engages with visitors is through their exhibit called “Extreme Ice.” This exhibit uses photographs and time-lapse videos provided by James Balog's Earth Vision Institute to document the accelerating rate at which glaciers are melting as temperatures rise across the globe.


The Museum of Science (MOS) in Boston, Massachusetts, also finds interesting ways to present challenging science topics, like quantum mechanics and nanotechnology, to the general public, in keeping with that museum's mission "to play a leading role in transforming the nation's relationship with science and technology."


Carol Lynn Alpert.

Now the director of the museum's Strategic Projects Group, AAAS Fellow Carol Lynn Alpert played a large role in launching the MOS's Current Science and Technology Center. Alpert was involved in some of the earliest "rapid response" museum programming, she said, addressing and interpreting big science and technology news stories, including the anthrax bioterrorism attacks in 2001, the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003, stem cell research and genetic engineering.


With a traditional museum exhibit requiring at least a couple of years to create and install, it's important to find ways to "keep up with the pace of events and discovery in science and technology," and to interpret those developments for the public, said Alpert. She works with scientists to communicate their complex work in presentations at the museum, in videos and other media, science theater and other events. Her group also created the Quantum Matters™ Science Communication Competition, which solicits quantum researchers' best ideas for how to inspire young people to get involved in their field.


"It's a challenge to make some of these more complex areas of science and technology understandable and exciting for a broader audience. Grappling with that challenge can be a lot of fun," Alpert said.


Science communication is also at the very core of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, one of the Smithsonian Institution's 19 free, largely publicly funded museums (and one zoo), said AAAS Fellow Torben Rick, the museum's curator of North American archaeology.

Torben Rick. Credit: Todd Braje.


"We have an obligation to get the word out," said Rick, an anthropologist and an archeologist who studies ancient maritime societies and coastal ecologies, especially on the West Coast of the United States. About five million people visit his museum every year, and Rick knows he has only minutes to convey something important about the natural world to any given visitor. He thinks simple exhibits, even dioramas, can speak to visitors, and he enjoys going to the Ocean Hall and watching people read the informational panels there.


Rick has come to believe that some of "the most powerful engagements" with the public occur during public programming events. He loves participating in "The Scientist Is In" events, taking a cart of ancient oysters and other objects onto the exhibit floor for four hours at a time to chat with visitors one-to-one about his research, while they examine objects that relate to his work. Oysters, which have always been a prized food, can tell us a lot about the health of the waters they lived in, and about the people who ate them. Having that conversation with visitors "is a great way to bridge the past and present and the future."


Rick said, "People love stories. They help visitors connect. People want to know, 'Where do I fit into this picture? How does this fit into my life?'"

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