Facilitator: Elizabeth Babcock

Recorder: Amy Bolton


The 21st Century has already brought with it a broad, deep array of audience and societal contextual factors that change the way people see, use, and experience natural history museums.

This conference theme explores the intersection of historical and current natural history museum assets and six contextual factors that seem to be here to stay for our audiences after the first decade of the 21st Century.

Natural History Museum Assets

As a starting place for discussion, we consider the following unique assets of natural history museums:

  • Collections, Data, and Evidence. Natural history museums contain vast collections of objects and specimens, as well as terabytes of data derived from those collections and their histories, that tell the story of the Earth and its peoples since their origins. Objects, the data surrounding their collection, and the research conducted with them - including new areas of research enabled by technologies such as genomic sequencing - form a unique foundation for public engagement, learning, and participation among informal science education providers.
  • "Built-in" Research Communities. Many natural history museums have one or more research scientists, collections managers, curators, and other scientific and technical staff that energize education, public, and outreach opportunities with active scientific research.
  • Historical Perspectives on Nature and Culture. The research conducted at natural history museums and with natural history collections, data, and evidence is a specialized type of science that usually incorporates long term perspectives on nature and culture. This historical view - and the educational opportunities it affords - provide critical insights for understanding current science and cultural challenges, such as climate change and language loss.
  • Large-scale Exhibits. Many natural history museums provide large-scale exhibits that have provided a basic understanding and inspiration to explore nature and culture for generations. Exhibits and the tradition of exhibiting are important assets to be considered in connecting with audiences in new ways.
  • Partnerships. Natural history museums are a part of a larger, broader landscape of learning about nature and culture. Perhaps more so than any other type of museum, the content of natural history museums is supported through informal interactions at home and outdoors, as well as by a wealth of additional informal learning institutions and organizations, including nature centers, zoos, aquariums, and camps. Existing and potential partnerships are important assets in advancing informal natural history education.

21st Century Audience and Societal Context

Audience research at the National Museum of Natural History has revealed six high-level expectations for museum-based experiences in the 21st Century. Some of these are familiar to us, but many challenge the traditional approaches to outreach, education, and public engagement at natural history museums. The descriptions below provide some conclusions from talking with a sample of visitors at the National Museum of Natural History. They are meant as a starting place for conversation and exploration.

  • Relevant. First and foremost, the experiences that stand out in visitors’ minds are those that enable them to relate their experience in the museum to their lives outside the museum. Visitors bring their personal curiosities into the museum, and these relate to their professional, home, or family lives. They are drawn to experiences that promise some connection to those interests. Topics of current popular interest and that are related to high-priority national topics also tap into visitors’ need to connect museum content to their daily lives.
  • Customized. Visitors place value on museum experiences that allow them to tailor experiences to suit their personalities, interests, or moods. Experiences that engage visitors in a dialogue and allow them to ask their own questions can add to the feeling of customizability. The opportunities for individualized attention and experience could potentially be enhanced by technological innovations and by access to the breadth of resources natural history museums have to offer.
  • Immersive. Among the most compelling informal learning experiences that visitors have are those that fully immerse them in the content by seeming to take them out of the museum setting (often metaphorically or virtually) and transporting them to another time or place. Immersion also includes the feeling of authenticity that visitors expect: Access to the "real thing" without many barriers to exploration.
  • Dynamic. 21st Century visitors are likely to bring with them an expectation of action, movement, and change. The world of media and the exploding number of opportunities for education and leisure have enhanced our audiences' expectations for seeing and experiencing processes that change over the course of one visit or exposure, or across many. Visitors expect to see and be a part of the developmental process, and not just see a static finished product.
  • Unique. Media and technologically‐mediated experiences have raised the bar for what constitutes a truly one‐of‐a‐kind experience. Technology is seen as competing with museums in providing informal learning experiences, despite the fact that museums have been actively incorporating technologies in their exhibits and online. Our audiences hope to do or see something extraordinary with us — something decidedly different from what they see and do every day.
  • Surprising. Natural history museums can introduce people to information and ideas they haven’t come across before or to experiences they didn’t expect to have and inspire them to explore new ideas they hadn't considered before. The “ah‐ha” moments that occur when a new idea is encountered can give a satisfying sense of accomplishment, reminding them of their capacity for understanding and synthesizing information across different domains

Linking Assets and Context/Expectations

One way to conceptualize the opportunities to advance our practice is by a grid that creates an area of overlap between and among these assets and contextual factors, or expectations. The working group will consider how the different assets and factors overlap in multiple ways to identify potential areas of innovation and the research agenda necessary for us to learn together about how best to bring them about.

Collections, Data, Evidence
Possible area of overlap between and among assets and opportunities
Scientific Community
Historical Perspective
Exhibits and Programs

Working Group Recommendations

The space below is an active, real-time record of the deliberations, ideas, recommendations, and concerns of the working group. It is intended to start as a note-taking space and take shape as the ideas take shape. Format is flexible: Paragraphs, questions, bulleted lists, and other strategies are welcome.

Recommendation for next steps of the Learnign Research Agenda
  1. Provide us an opportunity for us to provide feedback to the draft agenda.
  2. Make sure this research agenda gets tied to experimental practice in our places
  3. Prioritize these research questions.
  4. sort the research questions by discipline to see what the overlap might be
  5. figure out how to get institutions to adopt the agenda
  6. figure out how to get all of us to collectively adopt the agenda
  7. submit proposal to NSF an IMLS for funding of the research and experimental practice.

Summary of the Opportunity

The working group should provide their own input or ideas on the core opportunities of linking natural history assets with these emerging audience and societal contextual factors in the 21st century. Why is it important to make these links? What is the potential for growth and innovation? What would audience experiences look like if we were to be successful at making these links? What are the consequences of not pursuing new ways to link resources to new engagement opportunities?

Learning Research Agenda--What do we mean?
A long term (20 years?) agenda that is not limited to program evaluation but uses best practices in learning science research and is iterative in nature. The agenda improves our practice by offering an annotated map/pathway or direction to plot a course of action to expand our relevance.

Unresolved Questions for the group: who is doing the research? Are we all practitioners of research. How many different audiences for this research are there. Is the agenda implying multiple parts to this or is this a singular agenda?

Keywords for the research agenda: helps us assess progress; takes into account shifting contexts; flexible agenda that has integrity; the NH museums, once we adopt this agenda, should stay the course; outlines critical issues for the field; timely; cross-contextual; idiosyncratic learning.

Characteristics of 21c learning in the ideal: motivating, adaptive, suprisingling evocative, disruptive, relevant and unique and idiosyncratic, transformative, renewable inspiring, visitor/responsive/centric, authentically immersive, adaptive, transitive (ideas can start in the Museum and travel outside), empowering the visitors to set their experience agenda, question-inducing, dynamic, challenging, intergenerational, social, removing disciplinary boundaries, hope, one-on-one.

Assets--more. the group feels these are additional assets that NH Museums offer.
Trust in us/ (our) Reputation
Clarity of mission
Our Network

What is the Opportunity?
Collections, Data and Evidence
Through partnerships, NH museums could use their collections to answer a tangible problem in the world, to communicate more effectively its importance and how the research is relevant and how science works thus making collections relevant to the visitor.
Scientific Community
NH Museums connect our scientists to the visitors to show that science is dynamic-- resulting in motivating and inspiring visitors to see that being a scientist is something that is reachable.
Historical Perspective
The Historical Perspective allows visitors to see their place in the world so that they have relevant, question-inducing and disruptive experiences.
Exhibits and Programs can be a focusing lens or framework that can transform the visitors' perspective.

Foundational Research and Best Practices

This section will grow during and after the conference. The tagging exercise at www.informalscience.org has identified research and evaluation reports relevant to learning in natural history settings that could be brought to bear as foundational research and best practices. The working group is encouraged to add their own knowledge of applicable research and evaluation, as well as best practices (projects, programs, museums, etc.) at the intersections of natural history assets and audience and societal context.

Opportunities for Innovation

The working group will expand on its identification of the potential for growth and innovation and what audience experiences "look like" as explored in the Summary of the Opportunity. Here it will be useful to explore two different avenues of opportunity: 1) Ideas for innovation that are or are not "shovel ready". The less formed and more grandiose ideas are those that are likely to help identify critical questions in the next section; 2) Hypotheses about what the group thinks might be an effective innovation, for whom, under what circumstances, and so on.

THEMES and underlying questions.
1. Partnering with artists. What if NH museums partnered regularly with contemporary artists?
----DRAFT research questions:
  • Can partnerships between NH museums and artists bring in new audiences, lead us to new communications methodologies and lead to transformative experiences?
2. Timely action and response. What if we were flexible enough to change exhibits every 3 months in response to evaluation?
----DRAFT research questions:
  • Do we need different approaches, platforms and mechanisms to respond to timely concerns?
  • In a world of Twitter, what can we add to the communication about timely issues?
  • What is the nature of the experience to the museum and are they coming for information or what?
  • What might these working models and collaborations look like with respect to stustainabliity and replicability?
  • How do you mediate and balance the voices and agendsa of the artis, museum and visitor?
3. Advocacy: this topic is great opportunity for discussion! What if our institutions did take advocacy positions?
----DRAFT research questions:
  • Is there a trade-off between advocacy and credibility and how best do you frame those messages so that you maintain a position of credibility?
  • Is a museum a 'meta-scientist' or is it some sort of larger/broader space in which science is one (very important) thing that happens?
  • How comfortable can we be in presenting multiple perspectives and let the visitors make up their mind?
4. Blank slate/new beginnings vs. traditional roles (what would happen if we start from scratch or if we were just to innovate about peoples roles within the museum). what if scientists, educators and exhibits people worked in topical teams instead of disciplines? what if we were comfortable completely starting over? I wonder if the core philosophy of museums will change in the future? I wonder how much does the visitor value the traditional museum experience and what happens if we diverge from it too much? what if our museum could be a public school for pre-k through 12?
----DRAFT research questions:
  • Do we compromise public trust in the institution if we don't have collections and or researchers?
  • What is the correlation between trust and the fact that we have research and collections?
  • Does the public even know that we have scientists or collections?
  • Do collections enhance the learning experience? Are they necessary?
  • Are in house researchers necessary to the learning experiences?
  • Do we compromise public trust in the institution if we don't have collections and/or researchers?
5. Re-envisioning human-nature interaction-- What is the role of museums as facilitators of that connection? I wonder if NH museums partner with nature centers how will NH museums enhance the outdoor experience? What if NH museums and natures centers had unifi9ed agenda to address 21cc challenges? O wonder if my staff could eventually accept humans as part of nature? What if NH museums included examples of urban nature without prejudice?
----DRAFT research questions:
  • Why?
  • What is the role of museums as facilitators of that connection?
6. Visitor place in conversations and/or narrative (how much power do we give visitors in terms of content creation). what if our visitors voices showed up in our exhibits?
----DRAFT research questions:
  • When content is entirely staff-driven, how successful can it be in appealing to our publics?
  • When content is entirely public-driven, how successful can it be in appealing to our publics?
  • What would happen to visitor experience if you left scientists out of the messaging to the visitors?
  • What would happen if you left the visitors out of content creation?
  • If citizen scientists are empowered not only to gather data but to design research and methodologies, what happens to the quality of the science? What happens to the quality of learning and the degree of engagement?
  • How closely do public tastes for exhibit and program content mirror the views of staff? and does it matter?
  • Is controversy marketable?
  • When content is entirely staff driven, how successful can it be in apealing to our publics (i.e. can we all be steve jobs?)
7. New models of multi-sensory engagement (authenticity). I wonder is the overly stated need to incorporate technology into exhibits based on uniformed perception or research? What if we shifted being about the object to being about the interaction between objects and people? what if visitors could walk inside a diorama?
----DRAFT research questions:
  • Is it true that kids are being trained as visual learners these days and if it is, what does it mean for me when I design museum exhibits?
  • Is there a way to think about shallow multi-sensory vs. deep multi-sensory and is there a way to measure if one is more impactful?
  • What is the impact of different models of interacting with scientists with respect to multi-sensory engagement?
  • What are the effects of sounds and touch and smell on experience and do they influence retention and inspiration. How do you measure over the long term?
  • What are the design principles that truly do serve the most people and how to incorporate them into practice?
  • What will the effect be of having an unlimited sensory experience given that our understanding is that kids today are growing up in a sensory deprived world. Will we have to retrain them to live in this sensory rich world.
  • Can audio alone enhance imagination?
  • How do we exploit each of our senses to their maximum effect? Is it alone or in combination?
  • Are technologically created experiences as effective as the real thing?
  • What's the best multi-sensory experience: is it virtual alone, virtual and real, etc.
  • When considering these new models, which of the traditional models or experiences are most desirable to them to meet their expectations and which of them should we retain?
  • Are immersive nature-based experiences as transformative and how do you measure that?
  • How can we enhance the museum experience for hearing or sight impaired visitors using multi-sensory immersive experiences?
  • Are there key characteristics of experiences, such as citizen science projects, that provide deep engagement that can be transferred to museum settings?
  • As authentic experiences in nature become more novel, do they become more marketable?

8. Break down walls of NH museums
-- not in distinct areas but by team/project based
-- modelled on community centers (hub of access) What if a natural history was more like a community center?
-- creating networks of local institutions; being part of a local network
-- museum without walls--taking the museum out into the community. What if public libraries and natural history museums partnered to serve local communities? What if we developed a regional NH museum without walls? what if there were no such as NH, Art, Science and Children's museums and they were all considered instead 'experience centers'. I wonder what we've learned if we asked our communities about the most pressing issues of importance to them?
----DRAFT research questions:
  • If we use a non-building centric model what new ways can we engage audiences and visitors? And what is the effectiveness of these new models?
    • what opportunities can come from this.
    • What is the potential effectiveness, reach and scope of these models?
  • How does the environment in which the learning is taking place impact the outcomes?
  • And what would happen to the financial support of the institution?
  • How do we define a successful institutional or community collaboration?
  • what is a successful model (look outside museum field)?
  • How do we capitalize on each partners strengths?
  • What are new models for new organizational structure and how would they impact or influence visitor museum experience (eg. less silo based)
  • How do we reposition ourselves to respond to new technologies and maximize their potential impact?
9. Museum as convener: invite multiple voices or perspectives/ multiple narratives. what if we allowed museum to own the domain of awareness and freed ourselves form the obligation to impart knowledge? What if we had a visitor blog for every diorama?
--- DRAFT research questions
  • How do we effectively position ourselves as the go-to place and take the lead to bring people together in sharing perspectives around timely issues?
    • logistical/action plan
    • honoring different perspective,
    • networks and models
    • knowing your place the community
    • relevant issues
  • How do we balance stakeholders view, ethics, integrity of the science in these models?
10. Opportunities for visitors to interact with scientists and visitors to learn from each other. what if all visitors had at least. what if all visitors had at least one in-depth interaction with a scientist.
--- DRAFT research questions
  • What kinds of interactions do visitors desire of scientists?
  • Are scientists the only professionals at the museum that visitors want to connect with?
  • What are the impacts/benefits/outcomes that can come from scientist/visitor ointeacitons and how do those very by audience?
  • What is the potential or other museum professionals and visitor interactions?
  • how do we provide opportunities for visitors to learn from each other that is comfortable and reasonable.?

11. Other ideas. I wonder if a positive museum experience in one home city effects museum visitation patterns over a lifetime? Can a nature experience be transformative? Can science programs result in empowerment? How can our programs and exhibits be transitive (translate to other contexts) and authentic? What would a network of NH museums look like and how would we make it realistic? How do we increase our collective impact? What is the difference between a network and a partnership? How can indigenous knowledge and science support each other? How do we put nature back into natural history? but isn't urban space nature too? What are the entry barriers to technology? why are there no dioramas on urban settings? How do we send our scientists out to work with the public? How so we start teaching about bio-cultural landscapes?

Critical Questions and Directions for Research and Evaluation

This section will identify critical questions about audience experiences and learning. This section is the crux of the work of the group because it is intended to identify a broad range of critical practical questions that need to be addressed to move forward with identified potential innovations, as well as critical theoretical questions related to what, how, when, and why people learn in and around natural history museums and assets. The ultimate product should be a set of prioritized, nested questions organized in a way that makes sense to the group. The questions should address the critical challenges identified through preconference and first day activities.

Challenges and Opportunities for Collaboration

This section is intended to capture the challenges and opportunities for collaboration within and between natural history museums relevant to the intersection of these assets and audience and societal contextual factors. This section should identify key challenges, key opportunities, and important research questions about how we work together within and across museums to break down traditional "silos" that could hinder our progress.


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