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  • Ngaire Blankenberg

A New Language of Science Engagement

Is our current language of science engagement up to the challenges of the future?

Illustration by Jill Enders, who presented with Giulia Enders in their keynote presentation.

It is not a foregone conclusion that in 50 years, science centres will still exist. We are not immune to the forces of business disruption’.

The warning came from Maurice Bitran, CEO of the Ontario Science Centre in one of the last sessions of last week’s ECSITE annual conference (Europe’s Science Communication Conference).

I asked the panel of directors from some of the most established science centres in the world- what they themselves were doing within the organizations they direct to ensure their own resilience? Maurice spoke of the extensive strategic planning process he had embarked on (I can help with this!). Another panellist referenced an initiative that was started in 1986 as testament to his organization’s inherent forward thinking. 1986! Before cell phones, digital cameras, Facebook and YouTube!

The most genius comment though came from Maribel Garcia of Manila’s Mind Museum. She called for a new scientific lexicon that integrates a more multicultural vocabulary (think of the now much hyped Danish word hygge). New thinking needs a new vocabulary.

Behind the dazzle of AI, robots, quantum computing and rapid prototyping showcased at ECSITE- is the structure of our organizations, our business models and our leadership adequate to survive and thrive for the next 50 years?

Diversity Diversity isn’t just about being ‘inclusive’- it’s about responding to demographic changes in our audiences. I’m not talking about an EU project in which science communicators from France, Spain, Denmark and Poland collaborate. I am talking about including in our institutions and programmes- ‘working class’ and poor people, immigrants, people of colour, school drop-outs- who make up a sizeable and growing percentage of our communities. Our talk still smacks of paternalism: we want audiences to behave in a certain way (parents should engage with their children), to learn our language, to be worthy of our efforts. I wonder about the capacity for self-reflection amongst the overwhelming homogeneous conference speakers and goers (middle class, white men followed by middle class white women).

Inter-disciplinarity I was reminded of the linguistic possibilities of artscience during a great session on Art as An Agent of Change in our Institutions. The pecha kucha presentation on the ‘Sex Cells’ musical given by Lim Tit Meng, CEO of the Singapore Science Centre was hilarious. The charming, insightful keynote from the sisters Giulia and Jill Enders - bringing together illustration and text in their book Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ to tackle farting, vomiting, indigestion, excrement and other gut-related topics also made the point. Music, drawings, dance, art say things that words cannot.

In the session on Communicating the new quantum revolution, we also discussed the limits of traditional science communication tools and language to engage people in the rule-breaking revolution that is quantum. (‘We’ve done interactivity- what’s next?’ said someone also at the abovementioned looking forward session).

As enthusiastic as I am about combining art and science however, somehow I felt uncomfortable at the aestheticization (speaking of new words…) of ethnographic collections in the Recontextualizing Collections session. present? Does using collections in the creation of new art/design risk de-contextualizing and erasing the often bloody histories and collecting violence they embody?

The Private Sector In several sessions- there was an underlying scepticism, even hostility towards ‘industry’, the ‘private sector’ and ‘commercialism’. This felt super outdated to me. Companies are not always evil, and these days might even teach science centres and museums a thing or two about transparency. Without compromising the integrity that the public expects from science centres, nor underestimating the public’s capacity for nuance- surely, we can be more imaginative when it comes to collaborating with the private sector? Maybe we can even look towards the big disruptors in business (sharing economy, AI, data, Internet of Things) to guide our own soul searching.

In our book The Manual of Digital Museum Planning, Ali Hossaini and I argue that the digital revolution does not only impact on how we engage with the public, but, more importantly, it demands new forms of organization and governance for our cultural institutions.

Digital has its own language but there are many more- every culture has something to contribute to a new lexicon of science engagement.

Let’s get to work.

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