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.
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.