March 22, 2010

Science museums “tamed by agendas”… but whose?

Let’s call it Science Week on the blog. Today, some thoughts about Edward Rothstein’s essay in the Museums section of the NY Times. And later this week, my look at the new “Science Storms” exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry.

Actually, both these stories have a Chicago connection (not to be provincial), since Rothstein earned his PhD from the University of Chicago’s famed Committee on Social Thought, a think-tanky mingling of philosophy, sociology, history, theology, classics, art history, and other disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences. The Committee earned a conservative reputation during the reign of political philosophers Leo Strauss and Alan Bloom, and it continues to be associated with leading neoconservative thinkers.

So it’s no surprise to find Rothstein, in a fascinating but uncharacteristically scattered essay about the state of science museums in last week’s Museums section, voicing some anxieties and preferences that are both politically and museologically conservative.

Politically (and I’m using the term broadly), Rothstein objects to the fact that science museums’ exhibits and even architecture have become less “human centered” over time. For example, the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History (full disclosure: a new client of ours) introduces “the most exotic aspects of matter and time” but is less interested in “the ordinary human experience of the heavens.”

Such displays might leave us — young people, especially — “mystified by the world and [make us] lose respect for the human.”

Never mind that feeling mystified by the world is precisely the precondition for scientific exploration, as scientists from Richard Feynman to E.O. Wilson have stressed. What runs between these lines is a familiar conservative complaint about (liberal) critiques of human institutions and the social order. Rothstein writes:

This decentering of the human can become a devaluing of the human; the museum may even begin to see human frailties as a great flaw in the cosmic order that must be repaired. . . . Here [at the Field Museum’s Ancient Americas exhibit], as in the other exhibitions, contemporary Western society is the main obstacle — at best an irrelevance, at worst a threat.

So you can imagine his response to science museum exhibits that explicitly place blame on humans for things like climate change and biodiversity loss, which he wants to dismiss as faddish bids for “relevancy” and funding. Museums should be about making sense of the world, he believes, not exhorting us to take responsibility for it.

There’s an odd contradiction here. Rothstein scolds museums for “decentering” the human, but when museums explicitly put homo sapiens at the heart of the story, he finds reasons to object. In addition to AMNH and the Field Museum, he criticizes sociologically- and pyschologically-oriented exhibits at the California Academy of Sciences, Liberty Science Center, and Franklin Institute for putting advocacy and argument ahead of learning.

And the learning he’s looking for is the kind that feels “elevating” rather than “diminishing” to us humans.

I can’t help but hear echoes of the Texas Board of Education, which made news last week by rewriting the state’s social studies guidelines to emphasize (among other things) the superiority of capitalism and the accomplishments of conservative heroes like Ronald Reagan.

Rothstein is probably better educated than all the members of the Texas board put together. But in some respects he’s their kin. Science has been telling us things about human activity and human nature that are far from elevating, and we can’t look away (although we can take pride in the fact that science, a human enterprise, has advanced far enough to see what’s going on).

Either humans are reduced to insignificance by the wide zoom of an exhibit (as in the Rose Center’s story of the developing universe), or they’re both present and accountable within a more human-centered frame. To resist both options at once is sheer ideology.

I won’t dwell on Rothstein’s museological conservatism, which predictably centers on the role of scientific specimens and artifacts. He praises institutions like Boston’s Museum of Science for experimenting with new ways to “take a traditional collection and transform it,” rather than relegating those objects to storage vaults to make way for Hollywood-themed traveling exhibits.

Here I’m more sympathetic. I even appreciate his attempts to challenge the reflexive liberalism of much museum thinking, as in his suggestion that some museum should mount an exhibit about “the importance of prejudice” — not the “socially evil” kind but the mental “process of prejudging, predicting, and preventing.” That’s exactly the kind of provocation that can benefit any field when its assumptions may have gotten a little too comfortable. (I took a few courses in the Committee on Social Thought myself, back in my grad school days.)

And I praise Rothstein’s praise of experimentation and variety. I just don’t see as much of it as he does when I look around the field. I wish that science museums were in a time of uncertainty and self-conscious rethinking, the kind of transitional moment that “might yield a new model as yet unimagined.” It doesn’t help that the museum critic at our nation’s newspaper of record — the one that museum directors and trustees hope to see themselves reviewed favorably in — is such an eloquent ally of the past.



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