Museums and your Worldview

Does who you are affect what you can talk about?

Exhibitions don’t exist in a vacuum: people experience them in the context of the institution in which they are located. And often that institution has a long-standing reputation (call it a ‘brand’ if you like) which will influence what people expect to see there. (You wouldn’t expect an exhibition in Questacon to be the same kind of thing as an exhibition at the Australian War Memorial, for example).

To explore this idea further, let’s consider museums of science. Does an audience’s expectation-arising-from-reputation mean that science museums are obliged to present only a scientific, empirical view of the world in their exhibitions?

I’d like to explore a case study: the ‘The Science and Art of Medicine’. exhibition in London’s Science Museum. I’ll say up front that I haven’t seen this exhibition, but it is described on its website thus:

The Science and Art of Medicine gallery, one of the world’s greatest collections on the subject, reveals the history of medicine across the world and across cultures . . . A newly redisplayed section deals with other living medical traditions, including African, Chinese, Indian and Islamic practices.

17th Century Acupuncture teaching doll, one of the items on display in the exhibition (From Science Museum website; image no 10284604)

Its coverage of alternative medicine, in particular homeopathy, has apparently caused a bit of a ruckus. As one blogger said:

Depressingly, the [Science Museum] seems to have pandered to the whims of quacks by allowing them to create their own exhibit, and it looks like there was no quality control . . . [this] matters because the [museum] is supposed to promote science and understanding, not fuel an ever increasingly tiresome debate between those that painstakingly research and collect data and those that appear to pick any old idea then try to convince people it works.

The blog post closes with the statement:

Institutions like the Science Museum unfortunately do not have the luxury of sitting on the fence with issues such as these, especially when they hold a huge responsibility of informing the public.

This statement is telling – the writer seems to be just as vexed by the location of the exhibition (in a science museum) as he is about the exhibition’s content. Implicit in his statement is the assumption that the science museum is vested with a sense of authority, and from this comes a responsibility to ensure only scientifically verifiable facts are presented. Indeed, this writer and others suggested the museum should go further and expose unscientific and unsutstantiated claims wherever it can.

There was sufficient a wave of discontent for the museum and the exhibition’s curator to release an official response to the criticism, explaining their rationale for its inclusion of ‘alternative’ medicines in the display:

we take an anthropological and sociological perspective . . .we do not evaluate different medical systems, but demonstrate the diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world. Our message in this display is that these traditions are not ‘alternative’ systems in most parts of the world. Instead they currently offer the majority of the global population their predominant, sometimes only, choice of medical care. We do not make any claims for the validity of the traditions we present . . . We consider that these ‘alternative’ medical practices are of considerable cultural significance. We also recognise that some may consider the inclusion of these practices in the Science Museum controversial.

This statement in turn triggered its own flurry of comments, such as:

I strongly believe that something so fundamentally unscientific, really has no place in a science museum, no matter how anthropologically and sociologically interesting.

Again, the problem seems to be that the exhibition is presented in the context of ‘science’, more than the fact that the story is being told at all.

I first came across this controversy on Twitter, when someone (a scientist) posted a link to the Science Museum’s response, calling it ‘appalling’. When I retweeted the link, one of my colleagues (a historian) wondered what the fuss was all about, thinking that the inclusion of this content in a science museum was a refreshing dash of ‘anti-imperialism’.

In these different responses, I think I see a bit of a philosophical clash regarding what a museum (particularly a museum of science) is for.

One the one hand there are those who wish to promote a scientific viewpoint of the world, with all the benefits and knowledge science has brought to our lives. They might see the inclusion of alternative medicince as a kind of  slippery slope towards giving airtime to misleading claims and scare stories, leaving society the worse for it. (For instance the consequences of the so called MMR ‘scare’, where the conjuring of a false risk led to a decline in vaccination rates, thus exposing children to the real and deadly risk of diseases like measles).

On the other hand, the ‘march of progress’ narrative which is often implicit in science and technology exhibitions makes some people (in particular some museum professionals) feel a bit uncomfortable. Other experiences and perspectives can appear to be marginalised in a ‘technology trumps all’  kind of triumphalism. Science and postmodernism do indeed make odd bedfellows!

(But this is all getting a bit philosophical . . . and if I sound like I’m sitting on the fence it’s because I think I have a better view of the whole landscape from there . . .)

So let’s bring it back to visitors. What do they expect from a science museum?

There is research to suggest that visitors do see Science Museums as venerable, authoritative institutions. And this does affect the way they perceive exhibits they see there: they expect to be told clear facts and a scientific view of ‘truth’. In this context, a science museum would need to tread carefully: display does not necessarily mean endorsement, but visitors may take what they see at face value unless authorship is made extremely clear.

What this means for this particular exhibition at the Science Museum I can’t say, although I do know that the museum generally conducts thorough audience research during their exhibition planning process. It would be interesting to see what their research says about this one.

UPDATE: Sometimes you get so caught up in planet Interwebs you forget what’s sitting on your bookshelf! Following writing this blog post and others, I’ve once again picked up my copy of “The Politics of Display: Museums, Science Culture” edited by Sharon MacDonald. It looks at the political consequences of scientific displays and argues that they cannot claim to be apolitical. Have a look if you want to explore this topic further.

7 Replies to “Museums and your Worldview”

  1. When Susannah writes…

    “…if it stimulates this kind of debate then it can’t be all bad”

    …I wonder if the the science is really considered important here. “What it means” might simply be “bums on seats”, so as to speak.

    1. Yes, Andy, that’s partly what made it quite disappointing for us; the apparent desire to get people in not because of the credibility of the content, but its potential for stirring up debate; which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but I’d argue against the tactics employed in this case.

  2. Hi Regan,

    Thanks for your link!

    I hosted my colleague Alex’s post on my blog because I thought it was important to share with people who, like yourself, hadn’t had a chance to see the exhibit yet – but would be interested by its content.

    My reply to the Museum’s official statement is now on the Guardian science blogs site:

    We posted this on the same day as David Colquhoun’s research and criticisms:

    I’d like to go through your points and share my views…

    “Does an audience’s expectation-arising-from-reputation mean that science museums are obliged to present only a scientific, empirical view of the world in their exhibitions?”

    – When that museum is the Science Museum, I’d say the clue is in the name, and yes.

    “the writer seems to be just as vexed by the location of the exhibition (in a science museum) as he is about the exhibition’s content.”

    – As was carefully pointed out in the original post, it is not that the Science Museum chooses to talk about alt med that is the problem. The problem is the way in which it is presented; in terms of the content. For more on this, I recommend DC’s post in particular.

    Of course ideas in medicine that don’t stand up to scrutiny, have fallen by the wayside over time etc., have their place. There are many practices that have been and gone.

    Hopefully many things still popular today will dwindle into obscurity too – but just because they haven’t yet, does not mean we need to pretend they’re just as effective as validated medicine. To do so seems to me more like trying to avoid offending people instead of educating them (which is, in my view, what museums should be doing).

    “Implicit in his statement is the assumption that the science museum is vested with a sense of authority, and from this comes a responsibility to ensure only scientifically verifiable facts are presented.”

    – Yes, I do believe the museum has a responsibility to be truthful and educational with its content. Otherwise the authority and respect it (rightly) commands would be somewhat without cause.
    From the Museum’s site:
    “The Science Museum is the world’s pre-eminent science museum. It houses outstanding collections relating to science, technology and medicine, and is one of the most prestigious and respected organisations dedicated to the promotion of public science and technology.”

    “the problem seems to be that the exhibition is presented in the context of ‘science’, more than the fact that the story is being told at all.”

    – Exactly. Because research, as the exhibit says, *has* been done into many alt med practices, and found them to be ineffective. There was and is good reason for the Evidence Check report and its results are why many are unhappy with the NHS’ spending on homeopathy and other complementary medicines;

    Again, it is the way the exhibit is presented, not the mere fact that it is about CTM, acupuncture etc.

    “the ’march of progress’ narrative which is often implicit in science and technology exhibitions makes some people feel a bit uncomfortable.”

    – I don’t think the prospect of making people uncomfortable is good reason to shy away from facts, especially in this context. What if there were a holocaust denialism exhibit in a war museum?! I expect the WW2 atrocities make a lot of people uncomfortable, but that is no reason to twist and distort the truth – indeed, it is even more reason NOT to do so.
    (Have I just Godwinned myself?! Crap.)

    “let’s bring it back to visitors. What do they expect from a science museum?”

    – Can we (not just yourself, a lot of people are doing it) stop trying to insert a crowbar between ‘scientists’ and the rest of the population? 1. It’s not only scientists that are annoyed by this exhibition 2. we’re people too, you know!!
    The scientific method is not the sole domain of scientists; it’s used in many fields (including history). It’s a philosophy. The whole point of skepticism is to promote critical thinking and the scientific method, not just among the scientific community but in the wider sense, to arm people with the tools to… well, detect BS.

    Anyone can comment on this and many are.

    “display does not necessarily mean endorsement, but visitors may take what they see at face value unless authorship is made extremely clear.”

    – Indeed, and again referring to DC’s post and the guardiansciblogs piece, I do not think it is clear at all and would leave many visitors with a sense that Alt Med is pretty good stuff – precisely the kind of misinformation that campaigns like 10:23 etc. have been working hard to correct.

    Thanks again for your post,

    1. (this is a copy of the reply posted to


      Sorry if it appeared I was ignoring your comment – tyranny of timezones! (I’m in Australia).

      Even though I think we mostly agree with each other, for the record I feel I should clarify where I’m coming from and why I wrote the blog post. Part of it was me playing Devil’s Advocate; part was me trying to think through some issues.

      I’ve been thinking for a while about the relationship between exhibitions and different kinds of museums, and this seemed like a nice example to explore the boundaries of what is and isn’t sufficiently ‘scientific’ to include in a science museum. As I said I haven’t seen this exhibition so I’ve had to extrapolate from the comments (and if I’ve misinterpreted or misattributed anything in the process I apologise).

      So let’s start of with the statement I tentatively put forward: that a science museum should only include scientifically verifiable ‘facts’ in its exhibitions, and that’s what makes it a science museum. OK . . . but is there a firm boundary where facts stop and political or social factors come in? For some topics, I’d argue not.

      Consider a common exhibit in science and technology museums: military hardware (war planes, etc.) Now you can stick to the science: engineering specs and who invented them, when, etc, etc, . . . in the process neatly sidestepping the fact that these bits of technology were designed and built to KILL PEOPLE. (A fact my pacifist mother never let me forget!) What did the people who made the hardware feel about this? What about the ‘victims?’ None of this is in the realm of scientific ‘facts’, so therefore you might say has no business being in a science exhibition. Fine, but then by omission even if not by design, your ‘technology only’ exhibition will come across as very hawkish and pro-military, which is a political statement in itself (this is where I was going with the ‘technology trumps all triumphalism’ statement).

      Another example would be the Apollo missions, which is a scientific story intertwined with the political story of the Cold War. The science is only part of the story. (But you can still show proof why the moon landing conspiracy theorists are a bunch of dumb-arses!)

      I feel I should also clarify what I mean by asking visitors – I can’t speak for others and their ‘crowbar’, but I have a very specific reason for bringing it back to this point. I’m doing a PhD in museum visitor research, and I’m interested in how exhibition design decisions affect the way visitors experience exhibitions and what interpretations they consequently get out of them. I don’t see scientists and visitors as different populations; I see the former as a subset of the latter.

      You have asserted that the exhibition could leave visitors with a sense that alt med is a good thing (which it may well do), and my research interests are all about testing hypotheses such as this.
      But in this case the only data I had were the responses of a self-selected population (the people who have felt sufficient ire to blog and comment on it). I’m sure you would agree that it would not be very scientific of me to reach conclusions based on these data alone. So the researcher in me is curious about the general visitor response, whether research has been done in this area, and in testing what message the visitor population in general is getting from this exhibition. That is all I meant.

      As an aside – I have a science degree (and science communication qualification), but I never feel comfortable calling myself a ‘scientist’ as that term seems to be reserved for people actively pursuing research in the physical or biological sciences.



  3. Just posting an update:

    There has been another posting on this issue on the Pharyngula blog:

    It really looks like this exhibition is alienating / annoying / p***ing off (choose your descriptor) a lot of people, and one I’ll need to add to the list of things to see when I go to the UK in August.

    I still think there’s something else going on here, but I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet. Something about there possibly being fundamental incompatibilities between practices of scientific enquiry (which works from evidence and rejects points of view which lack such supporting evidence) and current museological thinking (where giving voice to all participants is considered important if museums are not to reinforce existing social power structures). But I need to think about this more, and maybe some of my PhD background reading will shed some light on it. If this thought crystalises more I’ll write another post.


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