The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

May 02, 2012

Alan Alda warms up science communication with the Flame Challenge

How would you explain flame — what is it? what’s going on in there? — to an 11 year old? I grew up watching Alda play an army doctor on M*A*S*H, but his acting and PBS interviewing work have led him to some real-world questions about how science is conveyed to us laymen. In partnership with Stony Brook University, where Alda teaches scientists how to improvise and “be more authentically themselves” with the public, he has organized a contest for scientists and anyone else who wants to enter. Submissions are now being judged...by an 11 year old near you.

I blogged a year ago about how little patience the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman had for standard science pedagogy, which too often teaches us vocabulary (“energy,” “momentum”) but not what’s really going on.

Alda is putting on Feynman’s mantle when he describes his own 11 year old self asking his teacher what a flame is and being told, predictably, “It’s oxidation.” As he writes in a recent guest editorial in the prestigious journal Science, “I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name.”

 

Hence the Flame Challenge, which received more than 800 entries from 30 countries. After being vetted for accuracy by scientists, the entries were sent to kids at 130 schools around the US for judging. Finalists and a winner will be announced next month at the World Science Festival in New York. (That festival, as I’ve mentioned, is run by the real latter-day Feynman, theoretical physicist Brian Greene, along with his partner, the science journalist and media producer Tracy Day.)

The emphasis here is on clarity, on helping somebody really get the concept. Alda is no fan of dumbing down; there’s no condescension here about the sophistication of the average 11 year old. The point he’s making is that if you can communicate a complex idea successfully to a kid, you know you’ve really nailed it. And a sixth grader is less likely than an adult to nod sagely when he’s fed an “explanation” that’s really just a vocabulary list.

But Alda is onto something deeper here. When he pursued that clarity and accessibility in his interviews with scientists, he found that the interactions became warmer, more human, more connected. It wasn’t just the facts that came to life, it was the people behind the facts — as well as their relationship to Alda and, by extension, viewers at home.

Having to talk with someone who was truly trying to understand caused an actual human interaction to take place in these interviews. There was more warmth, and the real person behind the scientist in the white lab coat could emerge. Suddenly, both young people and adults could see that scientists were like them, with a natural way of speaking and even a sense of humor. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Informal science education, Institutional personality, Natural history, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling, Subjectivity
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December 06, 2011

A dream conference on public science — help me imagine it

A new grant solicitation from the NSF has me thinking about how and why scientists communicate with laypeople like us, and how and why some laypeople get excited about it. I’ve blogged before about what makes that connection work, but I don’t think there’s been a national conversation about it. Maybe it’s time.

After all, the proliferation of new science content — much of it of a kind you wouldn’t have seen even five or ten years ago — is remarkable. From podcasts like Radiolab and StarTalk and live series like the scrappy Story Collider or the star-studded TED Talks, to new approaches in old-media outlets like Scientific American and PBS, not to mention all those books for the “general reader” that scientists and science journalists are writing, there’s a new energy and a new flavor around science communication. Human narrative is becoming more central, as is humor. Personality and subjectivity are breaking in. The limits of science, and its blurry boundaries with mystery and speculation, are coming out of the closet.

And the whole thing feels less like “science education” than like...well, a cultural phenomenon. Creative intellectual expression meets audience enjoyment. Science as song.

The nature of this change is fascinating to me, and it seems to be largely unexamined. We should be talking about what impulses drive it, what its historical antecedents and social influences are, and especially what it hopes to achieve.

Enter that grant program from the National Science Foundation, which invites proposals for research into innovative evaluation methods in formal or informal STEM education. Don’t worry, it took me a few seconds to sort out the self-referentiality there, too. When I got my head around it, and especially when I saw that there was a grant category for organizing a conference, I realized that this could be an opportunity to bring the best minds in the field together to discuss both sides of the coin:

What is good public science? / What good is public science?

In other words, what does engaging, energizing public science look and sound like? How does it differ from its implicit opposite, professional or inward science, and from the traditional ideals of classroom-based or museum-based STEM learning? How does it relate to other domains of cultural production and engagement?

And the flip side: what is public science meant to achieve, and for whom? What kinds of social, civic, or individual goods are at stake? Most relevant to the NSF grant guidelines, how can we tell if it’s working? We could use this dream conference to come up with new evaluation metrics—or, to use that trendy term, a framework—sensitive to these new forms that science is taking all around us. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Evaluation, Informal science education, Innovation, Institutional personality, Learning, Museums, Science museums
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August 05, 2011

Beyond learning: museums as aesthetic experiences

Part of the fun of the Visitor Studies Association conference two weeks ago was getting to bat around provocative ideas with some terrific colleagues. My own lob into the fray was a brief talk asking what we’d gain by seeing museum visits — even to science museums and the like — as aesthetic experiences. Here’s the gist of it.

It helped that one of my fellow panelists, Jennifer Novak-Leonard, had just talked about impact assessment in the performing arts. Everyone knows a symphony or a contemporary dance performance is an aesthetic experience, right? But in the museum world — even in art museum category, I’m afraid — what dominates the conversation about purposes and outcomes is learning. That fits the Enlightenment roots of museums, sure, but based on my experience researching audiences in the cultural sector (from Baroque music to science centers to zoos) it leaves out what matters most.

When we ask visitors why they came to the museum today, the top two responses are usually something about having fun and something about spending time with family or friends (the specifics depend on how we ask the question). Coming in third is learning something new or exploring the museum’s content area (natural history, wildlife biology, art history, whatever).

Whatever else it is, museum-going is a pleasure-seeking activity. Learning can be pleasurable, of course, and it’s a key ingredient in the stew. But it’s not, in itself, what draws people to museums. As the logicians would say, learning is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of a successful museum experience.

Yet what is our entire apparatus of museum evaluation built around? What are the funders paying us to assess? What do we set our exhibit and program outcomes around? Not our visitors’ first two goals, pleasure and social interaction — despite the fact that both of these are getting attention as components of a healthy, sustainable society. We focus almost exclusively on their third priority, learning.

Of course, we acknowledge that museum experiences have to be engaging, stimulating — pleasurable — in order to hold people’s attention long enough for them to learn something. But the hierarchy is clear: pleasure (if it’s present in our conversation at all) is the means to an end: it’s one of many things that can contribute to the desired outcome (learning). What if, for once, we flipped that and saw learning as one thing that can contribute to pleasure? What if pleasure, that basic building block of human and social happiness, were the highest goal?

In other words, what if museums took a page from the performing arts and thought of exhibits and programs as aesthetic experiences? By “aesthetic” I don’t mean “beautiful” or even visually striking. I’m using the word in a broad sense based on a tradition that runs from Aristotle to Kant and Schiller and right up through 20th century formalism. An aesthetic experience is one that’s intrinsically, not instrumentally important. It feels purposeful but doesn’t serve any purpose external to itself — except pleasure. It’s a sensory experience but somehow weaves sensation and rational understanding into a whole that transcends both parts, with results that are emotional. It’s a species of play. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Culture sector, Institutional personality, Museums, Science museums, Visual art
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May 01, 2011

Technology and its discontents in the arts — The Culturelab dust settles

My brain is still buzzing from two days of presentations, conversation, and debate at the second annual Culturelab convening at the University of Chicago. Day One was an invitational affair with a small group of philanthropic and government funders from the US, UK, and Australia. On Day Two we were joined by Chicago-area arts leaders (and some terrific grad students who will become arts leaders) for an "emerging practice" seminar. The heart of the agenda was a debate about technological layering onto arts experiences: enrichment or distraction?

I had assumed the conceptual action would be on Day One, with its big-picture agenda built around the recent supply and demand fracas in the arts (I spoke on the demand side of the equation). The topics for Day Two — technology in the morning, pricing in the afternoon — promised a more tactical discussion.

But things got interesting well before the lunchtime debate between Alan Brown, the well-known arts researcher (and founder of the Culturelab consortium), and Martha Lavey, the much-admired artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater, about whether audiences should be able to use their mobile devices during performances. Ron Evans (at left) gave a witty and eye-opening talk [pdf] about mobile interactivity and augmented reality, including a card-game app from the Tate Modern in which visitors (you have to be at the museum to play) pick artworks that they think would win in a fight if the works came to life and started brawling with each other.

You could hear the uneasy chuckles in the room: Sounds clever, but is that how we want people engaging with Art?

Evans was followed by another bright young light in the world of social tech: Devon Smith, who talked about foursquare and its current and potential uses in the arts. Among her examples: an art-treasure hunt and exhibition held last year in New York called Mission: Edition, from an art gallery interested in what it calls “psychogeography.” Not surprisingly, the Brooklyn Museum is also on Smith’s foursquare A-list.

What I began to realize, listening to Evans, Smith and others talk about technologies as simple as supertitles and as sophisticated as this amazing dance interactive, is that what’s “augmented” about these arts experiences is the social connection. There’s someone talking to you. Or you’re talking to someone. You’re not alone. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Chicago, Conferences, Culture sector, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Slover Linett events, State of the arts, Visual art
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November 14, 2010

Guest Blogger: Tom Shapiro on TEDx Midwest

Our colleague and collaborator Tom Shapiro, a partner at Cultural Strategy Partners, was one of the lucky few (okay, lucky 350) who attended Chicago’s homegrown TED a few weeks ago. The conference took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on October 14 and 15. I asked Tom to share a few thoughts about the gathering with our readers. Here’s Tom’s take.

I found TEDx Midwest immensely enjoyable and often engrossing. It was fascinating to witness both the “TED-ness” of the event—a communal, anticipatory giddiness of being privy to something “important”—and the speaker’s talks themselves. While listening in the darkened theater, I observed three themes, not about the content, but about the conference as a whole.

First, a bit of background. These “x” versions of the TED conference are “local, self-organized events” put together under the “general guidance” of TED proper, the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference started in 1984 in Monterey, California. The TED formula is to bring a broad array of thought-provoking presenters together to speak to attendees in 18-minute talks—no notes, no bullet points, just wisdom and passion.

In this first-ever Midwest version, the twenty speakers and five performers included oceanographers, artists, entrepreneurs, architects, paleontologists, and authors, some of them MacArthur “genius” award winners. The assembled audience was hardly less illustrious, comprised of machers from the region, select high school students, and others seeking inspiration from the speakers as well as from each other.

The speakers didn’t disappoint. They were impressive and fascinating people telling impressive and fascinating tales. From paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey talking about finding the oldest human fossils in Africa’s Olduvai Gorge to Planet Space Company chairman Chirinjeev Kathuria promoting commercial passenger space flight, the talks covered a gamut of human opportunities and natural challenges (like resource depletion and global warming).

The gathering was perfectly situated in the MCA Chicago, which presents the best of current exploration and representation in the visual arts, and which hosted TEDx in a most welcoming and enthusiastic way. (Full disclosure: my wife directs the museum. The conference wasn’t sponsored or curated by the museum; the organizers rented the space.)

As a side note, I found that TEDx’s presence at an art museum raised interesting questions about the role museums and cultural organizations can play in bringing all kinds of contemporary issues and creative endeavors—cultural or not—to light. Should they stick to their knitting (e.g., “visual art”) or tackle the broader topic of creativity and innovation whole cloth? As museums increasingly try to function as “town squares,” bringing people together around complex issues and big ideas, they come to resemble a TED conference in certain ways.

But let’s get to those three themes, which I offer as possible ways to improve TEDx Midwest next year. (Note to cultural organizations: These principles might be worth keeping in mind when creating events, forums, and exhibitions that serve the broader purposes of social investigation and issue-tackling.) ...

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Categories: Chicago, Conferences, Engagement, General, Innovation, Institutional personality, Museums, Other nonprofits, Personal reflections, Visual art
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August 01, 2010

Nudging the visitor research field to think more about [fill in the blank]

Sarah and I were in Phoenix these last few days for the Visitor Studies Association conference, where the debates ran well into the night over drinks. At the “marketplace” session on Thursday, we posed a question to our fellow attendees. Here‘s the data we collected…and an invitation to add your own.

Phoenix was hot, both meteorologically and politically. But in the cool confines of the Wyndham, we set up our table (see photos, a first for the firm) next door to our friends from Randi Korn & Associates. I scrawled this question on a flip chart:

“In your humble opinion, what should the visitor studies field be thinking more about?”

As people stopped by, Sarah and I invited them to write short responses on another pad. Here’s what we got. I‘ve re-ordered the responses to group and link the ideas, but left the wording verbatim.

The visitor studies field should be thinking more about…

  • Visitor studies as a tool for organizational change → need to work with CEOs

  • Accessing boards

  • Influence

  • Organizational culture

This was a frequent theme at the conference this year. Museum evaluators and other visitor researchers naturally want their work to make a difference to the institutions they inhabit (or work with as consultants). And they’re thinking big about visitors, impacts, values, and effectiveness — thinking in ways that could really help those organizations. But the fact is that most trustees and museum directors, not to mention many museum and informal learning professionals in other disciplines and departments, are kept at a distance from visitor studies because of institutional hierarchies, silos, and communication dynamics. So the field feels a little stymied, and its members are asking themselves what they should be doing to educate their colleagues and better communicate the value of their work. (Note this year’s conference theme: understanding the public value of visitor studies.) ...

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Categories: Assessment, Conferences, Learning, Metrics, Museums, Research issues, Visitor experience
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

About this Blog

Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »



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