Stepping off the plane in Kolkata, India, where the nighttime temperature seared at 104 degrees Fahrenheit and the monsoon was late, I admit my first thought was not about the class I came to teach, but the weather.
For years I’ve been fortunate to teach exhibition evaluation for the National Council of Science Museums, but this time was different and many Indian colleagues cautioned before my arrival: "high heat, pouring rain, and FLOODS." Through monsoon season (and everything else), India teaches us. We become learners even if we arrive as teachers. And so it was that my students (all Masters of Science candidates earning a Public Communication of Science degree) and I embarked on a three-week class (along with fellow instructor Gretchen Jennings) to explore how people learn science in non-formal environments and how museum staff can utilize audience feedback in the process of creating exhibitions.
At Science City, we observed and interviewed visitors to gauge whether they were interacting with the exhibitions or learning science. Our goal was to identify obstacles that were hindering them from doing so. The students debated with one another to define concise learning goals for each exhibit; not knowing the original "science learning" objective for each activity was a liberating constraint because it freed us to rethink the activities based on what we actually saw people do (or not do). We noted general confusion about the main ideas at each of the three activities we were studying.
Time constraints—we had less than one day to produce new exhibitions—meant only simple adjustments could be made. The students decided to add and enlarge graphics, change labels, and even used a personal laptop to show video. Language became a flashpoint of discussion while we worked on the new exhibition elements. Many Indians do not speak the National language, Hindi, or the adopted language—English. College graduates typically speak three languages including their regional dialect. Poorer Indians might only speak their regional dialect, which in Kolkata is Bengali. Because science museums are a popular destination for Indians across a wide education spectrum, we decided to add Bengali labels.
With exhibit modifications in-hand, we went back to the museum to see if we could engage people more thoroughly (or just more people) in science. Tremendous thanks to the staff and Director, Mr. A.D. Choudhury for allowing us to use their museum as our sandbox for exploration.
It is also worth noting that the students struggled with their professional ideology (i.e. "I am a science content expert") and their personal observations (i.e. "museum visitors try to interact but exhibits don't always help them"). In fact, this revolutionary program which confers a Master's Degree in the Public Communication of Science upon staff who may already possess a PhD in science, exemplifies why "knowing science" and "teaching science" are not always synonymous. Said another way, our colleagues in India are grappling with the realization that effective science communication has a better chance of occurring when the sender (i.e. Museum expert) is more familiar with the receiver (i.e. people who visit the museum). Smithsonian staff grapple with the same issues and, through this program, we share our expertise on learning in museums while we too become students of how another culture views learning in museums.
And so, our second visit to Science City brought with it small successes through the changes we made to the exhibitions. Perhaps the more powerful insight for our students was that the work didn't end in the museum that day. We could see that our changes helped visitors engage, understand, and explore science concepts. But fundamental questions surfaced about the ideological shift needed in order for prototyping and visitor feedback to guide our museum work. Reluctant to end the discussion, we had used our class time (including weekends) to fullest result and hopefully added ten more museum professionals to the ranks of visitor-centered exhibition interpretation.
Karen Lee is a curator with the National Numismatic Collection. She began her career in science and children's museum where her passion for exhibition planning and evaluation was cultivated. She now seeks to surprise and engage people in learning history from coins and money, while utilizing a visitor-centered approach to planning exhibitions. She has blogged about the National Numismatic Collection.
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