Wonder, Tinkering Spaces & Gender Equity — Science Centre Takeaways from ASTC 2018
We just returned from the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) conference in Hartford, Connecticut, which we attend every year to connect, share with our peers, and get inspired. We sat down with Interactive Designer Erika Kiessner for her take on the hot topics and questions everyone was asking this year.
A first theme that grabbed our attention was an ongoing debate between inciting wonder and teaching “hard science”. While doing a walkthrough workshop of the Connecticut Science Center, for example, the group remarked that a particular media installation wasn’t quite working because there was a clash between the mood in the room and the media in question. The environmental design was beautiful and dark, featuring an astronomical starfield of lights and reclining cushy pods, where visitors could watch video content on personal screens. The content of the media was very dense and technical, whereas you might expect, in this context, that it would be meditative, inviting visitors to speculate on the place of humanity in the universe.
Exhibition designer Paul Orselli remarked that this could be a great occasion to inspire wonder, a sense of imagination and awe in looking up at the stars. This comment started a debate about how to create this sense of amazement in a meaningful way. At GSM Project, for example, we believe that wonder and hard-science can coexist in a successful science centre. A great visitor experience should be made up of emotional beats, with different types of experiences throughout, some of which may include more scientific detail, and others which may serve simply to incite wonder through beautiful scientific phenomena. The first reason for this variety is that these centres need to appeal to a wide audience—not everyone finds the same kind of experience interesting or compelling. Secondly, you want to be able to show both meta and detailed narratives. On the one hand, we might be investigating in a narrow and focused way, while on another, we want people to be able to imagine asking new questions. If we’re taking a strictly “hard-science” or strictly awe-inspiring approach, we’re doing a disservice to our visitors, because science requires both. Many of the great scientific discoveries throughout the ages were due to a combination of wonder with perseverance, hard work and attention to detail. But smushing all of this into one exhibit doesn't work, you have to create distinct moments for each one.
There are several institutions doing a great job of combining these approaches, such as Science North in Sudbury, where they pioneered object-theatre as a storytelling method. The Exploratorium in San Francisco is very strong on wonder, working with artists and exhibition designers such as Ned Kahn and Shawn Lani to create impressive art installations exploring scientific phenomena . The Science Museum of Minnesota also stands out for their open-ended exhibits, allowing visitors to ask their own questions and experiment—a great middle ground between wonder and hard science.
Another interesting trend that came up at the conference was the shift from maker spaces to tinkering and experimentation spaces. The conference had its very own tinkering space in fact, complete with soldering, laser-cutting, 3D printing and other interactive tools and activities. Whereas about ten years ago, we saw the rise of “maker spaces” along with the broader societal maker movement and enthusiasm for crafts, today the focus is a bit different. In earlier maker spaces, for example, while there was potential for interesting activities, we also noticed a trend towards the “kitification” of activities, due in part to the challenge of completing any meaningful project within the confines of 20-minutes. This resulted in a lot of closed-ended programs, for example, making “smart” gadgets connected to the internet, which felt very procedural.
Today, on the other hand, we’re excited about the possibilities of tinkering spaces, which are more focused on experimentation and problem-solving in an open-ended way. Science centres are beginning to offer experiences to their audiences that are realizable within the time restraints of a program activity, but that also offer something satisfying at the end, beyond just a kit. This is still a fairly new type of programming that we haven’t quite put our fingers on yet, but we’re excited to see it develop and evolve.
Another compelling talk that caught our attention was delivered by Eric Siegel, Director of the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, about the notion of the slow museum. While, as exhibitions designers, we are often concerned with achieving the highest throughput numbers, he made an argument to embrace a different approach. Instead of aiming for every visitor to race through and see everything, perhaps we should be trying to create individual experiences that visitors can enjoy for a long time, creating more lasting memories. Dana Schloss of the New York Hall of Science echoed this idea within the context of maker and tinkering spaces. Participants get more out of it when they take their time. While we find it hard to imagine a science centre that doesn’t care about how many visitors it gets, we do find the idea of slowing down for more meaningful experiences compelling.
Finally, a significant part of the program at ASTC was dedicated to addressing gender equity and diversity, both within science centres and museums, and behind the scenes. Erika Kiessner participated in a panel entitled Creating a Culture of Gender Equity along with Trent Oliver of Blue Telescope, independent museum consultant Christina Ferwerda, Cynthia Brown of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, and Monica Montgomery of Museum of Impact. They discussed their own experiences of gender equity in the workplace, addressing issues such as ways that women could take more control of their position in the workplace, learn to negotiate better salaries, maintain their authority and have more equal footing. While it did incite some interesting conversation and participation from women at junior and senior levels, it also received some criticism for only addressing a binary interpretation of gender. There are clearly no easy fixes or answers to these challenges, but it’s an ongoing conversation that we look forward to pursuing both with our peers at work, and at upcoming conferences.
As with all conferences that we attend, we’re not necessarily looking for actionable takeaways to implement as soon as we get home, but rather, for new perspectives and questions to be asking ourselves. We’re glad to have attended another successful ASTC, and are curious to see how these issues of wonder vs. hard science, tinkering spaces, slower experiences, and creating more equitable environments will evolve throughout the year.