Can Natural History Museums Survive in the 21st Century?
Working Session at the 2012 Annual Conference of the Association of Science-Technology Centers

On October 16, 2012, Bill Watson, Kirsten Ellenbogen, John Falk, Nan Renner, Kate Tinworth, Steve Yalowitz led a session at the 2012 ASTC Conference to continue the conversation about learning research and innovation in 21st Century natural history settings.

Session Description
In February 2012, 100 informal science practitioners attended the National Science Foundation-funded conference 21st Century Learning in Natural History Settings. Learn about and participate in their process for making recommendations for relevant, participatory, content-rich experiences that link audiences with museum collections, research, and scientists. Next steps for collaboration between natural history museums and science centers will be discussed.

Session Outline
  1. Introduction. Who's in the room? Context of natural history museums, purpose for the conference, and how it was conducted.
  2. Introduction to task and transition. Participants in the session participated in a modified version of the NHM Assets x Audience Engagement Strategies matrix exercise, linking natural history museum assets to 21st Century audience needs and engagement possibilities to identify a) innovations in natural history museum practice (what's being done); b) opportunities for innovation in natural history museum practice (what could be done); and/or c) questions we need to answer about existing or new innovations (foundation for growth to innovate or spread innovation)
  3. Working Group 1. Facilitated discussion of the matrix exercise.
  4. Discussion. Reflections on the process, key ideas that came up.
  5. Redefining the Matrix for Science Centers. For science centers, what assets would be put on the y axis of the matrix? Would there be any changes to the x axis?
  6. Working Group 2. Facilitated discussion of modified matrix exercise.
  7. Discussion. What similarities are there between the matrices? What differences are there? Are there research questions in the matrix? What are next steps for collaboration?
  8. Wrap-up. Introduction of Conference Wiki, including Declaration of Interdependence, Trending Topics for a Learning Research Agenda, and Examples of Innovation in Practice.

Rapid Response/
Current Science
Learning Across Settings
Participatory Experiences
Technology Integration
Priority Content
Collections, Data, Evidence
Possible area of overlap between and among assets and opportunities:
  • Innovations in natural history museum practice: What's being done at the intersection of these areas?
  • Opportunities for innovation in natural history museum practice: What could be done?
  • Questions we need to answer about existing or new innovations
Scientific Community
Historical Perspective

Notes from 21C NH settings ASTC Table talk

Group 1
(Kirsten Ellenbogen)

One person from a science center, two from mixed science center/natural history museums, and one from a professional association; the other five people were from a natural history museum.

How do we tell the stories of objects that are important learning opportunities but not ones that should be on display (according to the culture they come from)
Dana Centre - NHM, London - balance between exhibits and programs - struggle with how to help people understand what goes on between the scenes
Behind the scenes action - the public loves that, but how do you push the envelope of that even more?
Smaller institutions - have pieces of great information but not enough to tell a full story - or key pieces that cannot be displayed
Materials that sit in our collection that just sit behind the scenes. The board asks, why have it if we're never going to display it. Even if it is for generations in the future, sitting in the future,
Sometimes finances are an unfortunate proxy to other things.
Who are you going to give it back to - Native Hawaiian groups are not tribal like American Indians, so who can we return things to?
Had to facilitate some of the opportunities that come from the convergence of assets and opportunity - used a new strategic plan to advance this - changed the board structure - used to use the board exclusively to make certain decisions but have now diversified that decisionmaking
More behind the scenes action will improve what the public thinks about our work. Need to transform the public perception of us.
People have expectations for more dynamic experiences. So are conservation labs, Dana Centre, etc really successful with the public?
What can we learn from art museums who are dealing with some similar issues?
What are we learning from libraries - how are they staying relevant today? Is there a way that in the future you could get certified to check out things from the collection - like a library.
How do we engage the public in talking about what is science and how do we know what we know. Collaborating with Portal to the Public to have their scientists trained
New common core standards want kids to be able to evaluate science. That is difficult, but doing a program to support this (At Michigan State) where grad students come in and do a science fair sort of display on their work, competing for a prize - travel to a conference. And then middle school students come in and are trained in evaluating quality of scientific research and they judge the "science fair" Have to also do some writing training with the youth.
What makes a good museum experience for all kinds of visitors - some prefer tech, some just want objects.
How do we get more public support - state funding - that recognizes the value of our work and our collection?
Look at the way Natural History Museums are portrayed in popular culture - they are trophy collections - and they are about control. Need to change the way we are portrayed in popular culture.

Group 2
(MaryAnn Steiner)

Current innovations in nh?

Opportunities for Innovation- what aren’t we doing that we could?

Critical questions do we need to answer to take ideas to scale?

Who we are and what we are interested in discussing:
Prior experience in children’s museums but next year designing a new NH museum- want to bring interactivity in nh get past the boring part of nh, want to reengage with basic facts of nature through an expanded discovery room notion. Show the value of the collection.

-science center and nh combo, interested in how we bring our collections to the broader public work of the museum
-also interested in how we grapple with big questions about our future and role

-working in a nh museum that is evolving into sci center nh 170,000 piece collection 145 year old museum. Interested in audience development: what can we do that gets people off the couch to visit the museum?

Foundation officer that supports a nh museum interested in how we connect public to collections:

Focused discussion on:

How can collections support interactivity and engagement in scientific processes? And can we push this to include addressing current concerns?

In terms of current issues: we are making the assumption that people want to have a place to understand concerns about nature. There’s a big pushback at our place. How to get beyond doom and gloom?

In terms of collections can:

People need different kinds of tools to understand and ask questions about things. How much is about the amount of collections on display and how much is how you show it…? Many people love to see a bear on display when they are already nature connected, but for others they want to be able to find collections that link to them even if they’re not already nature connected.

How to make collections and nh museums relevant and valued by visitors?

Direct interaction with scientists: Bringing collection out on to the floor with people who can talk about the specimen (20 people at a time) 3000 people came to do it. (NMNH). Once a month. Staff and partnerships with other museums and universities.

We agreed that this is powerful because visitors were able to make connections to knowledgeable and passionate people- about the objects they study, the questions they ask and the role of the museum in all that and the sense that you Meet a person who is passionate about the collection, things you don’t usually see.

Contextual display with a variety of ways to engage with the object: The Bear- in a case, if you connected a webcam to a bear in a den—the living bear and the collected bear, the fur you can touch, visitor feedback a log, blog, your story your observation…

Concern: Not hearing new ideas at this conferences, minor alterations, what would really change what we see. Not real comfortable with mobile tech in museums

Summary: NH as a place to make the activity be scientific process with materials and world questions…

Phase II. What grounds us in NH and yet pushes us- what does a NH museum do for a community? If we think of ourselves as the ugly ducklings/what can we do uniquely…that will become apparent when we are our full fledged wonderful selves?

The stuff is central- how to make it more dynamic?

Using a scientific eye- how do we coach people to engage the object?

How do we structure experiences so people can begin asking questions, what evidence do we represent that might generate questions, what connects us to big issues in the community/environment/social impacts?

How to tell the story of why so many objects? Tell that scientific story of why these collections? Are they inert- how do people use them? Why so many of the same species?

How to extend the collection/collecting process to now… maybe this is where digital can help- make digital collections of clouds, things they see permanent observation of our environment. Digital collections- (because we can’t collect or share everything in places like collectors’ corners)

This could be connected with public observations of migrations across museum settings- connect to a larger museum audience from MN to NMex to Mexico…etc..
Provide prompts for peoples’ scientific looking by predicting arrivals based on scientific records. Scientists so and so predicts this is the week to look for the trumpeter swans, you might see them doing xy or z in such and such a place… let us know if you see them and what they are doing, what time it is, etc…

In this way we become a living natural history museum- and can create graphics based on publicly generated data about how things are changing. Maybe make comparisons to museum’s historical collections. This helps visitors see how they are part of it, get’s people to attend to what’s going on around them in nature how they are part of nature.

In terms of scientific thinking skills, these kinds of tools will help visitors choose their own scientific journey through a more static set of collections based exhibits- one time you might seek evidence of evolution, climate change, form and function, or biodiversity visitors reasons to come back and practice their scientific reasoning…

The outdoors- how do we incorporate the outdoors? What’s our role? Maybe it is to inspire people to take the experience in the museum and have it outside too!

Group 3
(Kathleen Tinworth)

Is being small easier?
Can you be more nimble?
Maybe easier to collaborate.
Little museum- sometimes that means it easier to do it well.
No bureaucracy.

Rapid response
The things that should be the easiest can be the hardest.
If not in existing structure or pipeline it's hard to get done.
Some restructuring can make this work-- making rapid response teams, like Science in Action at CalAcademy.

Science North using technology even outdoors (QRs, etc.)-- assisting them in connecting through technology, because they want to.
Toys for them yes, but can be tools.
Should we leave technology behind? Why? Is it even possible? Do people want respite?
Not just sitting in front of screen-- using it to learn.

The "stuff" (collections)
What is the right amount of stuff?
The right amount is stuff you can do something// with.
Over-packing is too much.
The Field is experimenting with galleries with less stuff. World's largest book. Visitors seem to respond well.
Some museums have education collections-- pulling special things out for teachers.
Great to have good objects, but if they don't come in the door...

All ages engaged?
Real objects are important to children, even now. Also need things to touch, experiment with, manipulate.
New tech also provides new entry points.
Teen events, just for teens.

Tension between scientists and the audience advocates?
Science communication-- do we leverage our scientists in the right ways?
Are the scientists a big part of the difference between a natural history museum and a science center?
How does collection and scientists help my work, for example as an educator?
Scientific staff keep us informed and honest.
Portal to the Public cracked a lot of these issues.
Can non-internal scientists be leveraged? Sometimes can bring in external content specialists.
Permanent halls and museum footprints can create strife with and between internal scientists.
Education and Scientist liaison group at The Field, so even outside of projects they talk regularly.
Job description for scientists on team at CalAcademy-- to just subject matter expert, but a conduit to and from.

What's next? What does the natural history museum community need?
We have big questions:
How and when do people want tech -v- respite?
Co-creation-- how much do visitors want on our floor?
Connecting with outdoors? What's our role?

Natural history museums may be more relevant than ever!
Where can we get these questions answered?
The wiki?

Group 4
(Madlyn Runburg)

Possible area of overlap between and among assets and opportunities:
Innovations in natural history museum practice: What's being done at the intersection of these areas?
Opportunities for innovation in natural history museum practice: What could be done?
Questions we need to answer about existing or new innovations

Question Response
Innovations in natural history museum practice: What's being done at the intersection of these areas?
Cal Academy-Lindsay Developed Sustainability Action Plan, shift from telling everyone what the problems are to letting them know possible actions. This is a tricky path to take a position to say what SHOULD be done. They are in partnership with the city's policy/position as a starting point; supporting the stake in the sand the city put in place. Still, even this is tricky depending on the geographic orientation of the visitor. Someone not from the city may not see or agree on the prescribed action.
Bell Museum? Focused on not trying to not bum people out with exhibits.
Cleveland Museum of NH-Joel Their climate change exhibit lowest attendance.
Cleveland Person… Same at experience with the climate change exhibit at The Field. Says the topic is hard to explain without a ton of text, or they thought so. So, she wondered if NHMs and Science Centers can partner to tell these stories in a way that combines evidence and stories with hands-on, action-oriented exhibits.
Bell Museum? They took topics like energy, built an exhibit and used it as an opportunity to inject content and talk about climate change to break down the issue through the lens of energy.
Cal Academy-Lindsay Lindsay wrote her thesis on conservation in exhibits/programs in NHMs. She says most don't do research into where people are prior to creating these exhibits and what would make for important, relevant messages. Lindsay says most of our visitors come fairly educated and convincing them there is a problem misses an opportunity to create action. There is also a need or thought about showing how our conservations connected to these issues. NOTE: I may have been really off base with what Lindsay was trying to say here but I am sure she would be glad to share her work for further clarity or accuracy.

Opportunities for innovation in natural history museum practice: What could be done?
Bell Museum? He said that until they recognized their assets and started to work with that; in terms of messaging, exhibits and programs; they went untapped, as missed opportunities.
Cal Academy-Lindsay researchers in 65 countries, bringing them on the floor, info from the field, important to focus on the images…
Summary Conversation in this section covered methods for tackling tough topics in terms of approach or 'right way' to go about it including the tension between institutional purposes and priorities and visitor interests. There was also discussion on building public awareness and engagement with our research. In large part, our communities do not understand the value or purpose (or even that we do it) of our collections and research. Is it important? To us? To visitors? Why?

Questions we need to answer about existing or new innovations
Carnegie Have you had discussions about what public engagement means, especially in relationship to the name of your institution?
Franklin They have changed their names several times, lots of rebranding. They are back to their original name because of name recognition.
Cleveland Person… Same issue…organization across the street creates confusion. In process with major renovation, expansive collections and research area that public not aware of.
How can we help the public understand we do research and collections management and the importance and relevance of this.

Any big ah-ahs?
An example of NH more participatory and science museum like, led by a former Disney exec, very visitor service oriented, had recently let go of scientific staff so tensions shifted, Buffalo Museum. In terms of innovations in practice, what is this informing or shifting institutionally and within the community. What is the impact of this change?
How do you present these objects, integrate technology and do so without taking away from the object.
How do you prevent technology from being a content dump?
Example of children's museum starting up a nhm? How can collections engage the public and connect you to the research? Children's museums and science centers good at engagement, how can their expertise help? Giving people the opportunity to engage with scientific practices through Scientist in the Spotlight like programs not just at NHMs but at Science and Children's museums?
Hands on, connected to scientists, science practice, relevance's, objects as vehicles into evidence based conversation around tough topics.

Technology Questions?
Assets of Science Centers?
What is next? What would you like to see happen next?
Cal Academy-Lindsay When Lindsay was at children's museums she said she used to think about visitor interest and in nhm the focus shifts to sharing research. There is a tension between visitor interest and perceived agendas of a NHM?
Bell Museum? Museums are not the best places for information, rather the best place to engage people in science and science practice.
Bell Museum? Do we give visitors what they think they want or what we think they want. Do they know what to want? Do they know what is possible?
Joel Building appreciation for our assets can become a source of community pride.
Ann How do you monetize your assets and research? What drives your research agenda? What people want? What is needed? Money?
Cleveland Person… This tension between research, research agendas and funding is tricky, interesting, challenging. Studying for the sake of studying isn't as important as studying for how it can be applied. She wonders if the future nh researchers will or have to take a more applied path.
Cal Academy-Lindsay Driver for Cal is how are we advancing the field, building new understanding.
Franklin She wondered if NHM can do something that has nothing to do with their research?
CalAcademy Says sort of but ultimatley works to balance visitor interest with research.
? Next steps, what funds NHM work (research or education or both?) long term. Their endowment funds their (who?) research but what drives and funds public engagement. Dual mission of research and education and what are the intersections here? Where is the priority? Is application of research, sharing of it a priority? More important than maximizing research time?
? Cultivating a vision for the priority between a culture of research and a culture of education, a priority around these?
Falk The growing gap between what the public wants to know (priority) and what our research tells us are important topics, assets. Relevancy?
Role of tech, role of co-creating content, the outdoors (relevant and important in integrating this?)