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"Displaying climate change: Back to basics?" Soichot & McKenzie, 2011, Ecsite

"Displaying climate change: Back to basics?" Soichot & McKenzie, 2011, Ecsite

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Published by Marine Soichot
In December 2010, the Science Museum in London launched a new permanent display: The Atmosphere Gallery
subtitled ‘exploring climate science’. Despite its interactivity and futuristic design it is, at core, traditional. It
presents a long history of climate science as a neutral and rigorous discipline. Given that the Museum has been
pioneering more dialogic exhibits recently, for example ‘Prove It!’ in 2009, this straightforward approach raises
questions. Was this a deliberate strategy to prove the rigour of climate science? Or, was it intending to strip back
to their core mission - an explanation of hard science - to avoid the impression of campaigning?
In December 2010, the Science Museum in London launched a new permanent display: The Atmosphere Gallery
subtitled ‘exploring climate science’. Despite its interactivity and futuristic design it is, at core, traditional. It
presents a long history of climate science as a neutral and rigorous discipline. Given that the Museum has been
pioneering more dialogic exhibits recently, for example ‘Prove It!’ in 2009, this straightforward approach raises
questions. Was this a deliberate strategy to prove the rigour of climate science? Or, was it intending to strip back
to their core mission - an explanation of hard science - to avoid the impression of campaigning?

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Published by: Marine Soichot on Sep 07, 2011
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08/05/2013

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The Atmosphere Gallery
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is divided into five sections,each one mainly explored through interactive exhibits,all set in a spectacular and immersive scenography.The sections are: the climate system (sun’s heatenergy, past climates); Earth’s energy balance(greenhouse effect); the carbon cycle (Keeling curve,study of ice core); ‘what might happen?’ (climatemonitoring, predictions for ‘Climate 2100
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); our futurechoices (technological solutions, mitigation andadaptation to climate change). The focus is oncontemporary science but this is placed on a historicalcontinuum. For example, the second section profilesthe pioneering climate scientists Fourier, Tyndall,Callendar and, significantly, Arrhenius, who showed in1896 that humans were causing the greenhouseeffect. This long history of climate science is alsoillustrated by a few objects, some very symbolic, suchas an original Keeling sampling flask
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. Backing allthis, the Atmosphere website provides a largeamount of material for follow-up learning
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.The framing of the climate issue here is clearlyscientific and technological. Moreover, the exhibitionclearly aims to present the authoritative voice ofscience. Each section is introduced by a sentence tocontextualize the role ofscience: “science can show ushow the climate works andwhat causes it to change”;“science can track what’salready changing and help usimagine the future”; “sciencecan show us how greenhousegases work and why they reallymatter”. The dominant voice isthat of a hard scientist, ratherthan of social scientists oralternative thinkers. Although itis science-focused, it does avoid ‘scientism’. It tendsto present science as a benign and neutral tool tomake sense of and help us deal with climate change,rather than seeing it as the only solution: “Workingout what’s happening to our climate really mattersfor our choices today and into the future. Sciencedoesn’t have ‘final answers’, but it is a powerful wayto make sense of this incredible and complexplanet”. The other dimensions of the climate issue -political, social, economic, ethical - are minor if notabsent. Given that the Science Museum hasbroached these dimensions about other controversialissues, and does invite debate about climate changein their events and in some other smaller exhibits,these omissions are surprising. Indeed since 2002,the Science Museum has produced severalexhibitions about climate change or related topics.These have been presented in the Antenna gallery,an area near the Wellcome building café dedicatedto contemporary science and science news: “Climatechange, the burning issue” (2002), “Can algae savethe world?” (2007), “Does flying cost the Earth?”(2008), “Prove It!” (2009).‘Prove it!’
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was designed on the occasion of theCopenhagen conference that brought together allthe countries in December 2009 to discuss what willhappen after the Kyoto Protocol. It was a veryminimal exhibition: visitors were invited to enter intoa round space demarcated on the floor, to sit downon a ‘mushroom chair’ and watch a presentation.More in-depth content was available on touchscreens, divided into six sections. Each one presenteda perspective on the issue: the views of a climatemodeler, a climate scientist, the UK, the UnitedNations, the global economy and developingcountries. Therefore many of the stakeholders in theclimate change problem were exposed. It raisedvarious questions about the climate issue such as therelationships between North and South countries interms of responsibility and equity. In ‘Prove it!’ climatechange was not only a scientific problem but also apolitical, economic and social matter. The ScienceMuseum therefore went further than the traditionalapproach which focuses on displaying scientificmethods, tools and results in order to improve visitors’understanding of natural phenomena.‘Prove it!’ caused a media outcry, not because itwent beyond science but because the Museumappeared to be campaigning for strong action totackle climate change. It attracted attention byapparently not admitting dissent from a belief inanthropogenic climate change, by saying that theexhibition will give “all the evidence you need tobelieve in climate change”. The final feature, called‘voting station’, was highly problematic because itseemed like a petition pledge. After visitors read thefollowing proposition, they could choose “count mein” or “count me out” on a touch screen.I’ve seen the evidence. And I want the government toprove they’re serious about climate change bynegotiating a strong, effective, fair deal at Copenhagen.
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NATURE IN THE URBAN CONTEXT
In December 2010, the Science Museum in London launched a new permanent display: The Atmosphere Gallerysubtitled ‘exploring climate science’. Despite its interactivity and futuristic design it is, at core, traditional. Itpresents a long history of climate science as a neutral and rigorous discipline. Given that the Museum has beenpioneering more dialogic exhibits recently, for example ‘Prove It!’ in 2009, this straightforward approach raisesquestions. Was this a deliberate strategy to prove the rigour of climate science? Or, was it intending to strip backto their core mission - an explanation of hard science - to avoid the impression of campaigning?
Displaying climate change: Back to basics?
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http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/ClimateChanging/AtmosphereGallery.aspx
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In 1958, Charles Keeling began collecting air samples to monitor the chemical atmosphere composition. This program continues today. It is the longest continuous record of CO2atmosphere concentration.
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http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/ClimateChanging/ClimateScienceInfoZone.aspx
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http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/galleries/prove_it.aspx
by Marine Soichot and Bridget McKenzie
Image: Carlos Porto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
 
NATURE IN THE URBAN CONTEXT
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We spoke to museum staff who argued that ‘ProveIt!’ was not a campaigning effort. However, it clearlycame across as a proposition led by the ScienceMuseum (rather than an external agent) for visitors tosend a message to Government asking for a strongdeal on climate change. So visitors were invited toengage in political terms through the institution. Evenif the Science Museum can be seen as neutralbecause visitors were free to choose their answer, thefact that the museum proposes any options at allmeans the institution is engaging politically - this isunusual if not outside of their mission. Indeed, the‘voting station’ is clearly a tool the Science Museumdesigned to inform and shape political decisionmaking. One can argue museums are not the placefor conducting votes or polls. On the other hand, it isquite accepted that museums should be platforms forpublic debate about policy on scientific issues
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. Theaim is public participation and empowerment asmuseums and science centres can be considered“safe places for difficult conversation”
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. But what isthe purpose of dialogue within the museum ifparticipants’ voices are not heard outside museumwalls and as such do not reach decision makers?Here is a fundamental question about the missions ofscience museums and science centres. Most of thetime, they are viewed as neutral disseminators ofexisting knowledge. Do they have a social andpolitical role to take part in the democratic process?Can they set up tools for decision making andgovernance? Moreover, even if informing and shapingpolitical decision making is part of museums’ mission,are they able to do so and to manage the risk itrepresents?In the ‘Prove it!’ case, something unexpectedhappened: 80% of the gallery visitors chose “countme in” but on the website version 80% chose “countme out”. Apparently, climate denialists overwhelmedthe vote so it appeared that the majority opposed astrong climate deal, which then received presscoverage causing a PR crisis for the Museum. Forexample, the Sunday Telegraph reported “a poll bythe Science Museum designed to convince the nationof the peril of climate change has backfired afterbeing hijacked by skeptics”
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. Whatever the relevanceof the “voting station”, this episode highlights whatmay be obvious but is still important: online andmuseum exhibitions are very different public spacesand with very different audience reactions. TheScience Museum has experimented with discussionexhibits in its galleries for a long time without havingsuch problems
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. But in this instance, the media, thepublic and their practices are different. So themessage can’t be the same. The institution has torethink the way it communicates with its public andadapt, especially in order to manage the inevitableopenness of online media.Given what happened with ‘Prove it!’ - and theexperience gained since 2002 with the otherAntenna exhibitions on climate change - the teamdeveloping the Atmosphere Gallery had to take astep back. Meanwhile, they felt a shift towardclimate change in the public space. One monthbefore the Copenhagen conference, climate scientistswere shaken by what has been called
Climategate
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.This was reinforced in January 2010 with a mediastorm around an error in the fourth IPCC reportabout Himalayan glaciers melting. Although thewider truths were not well reported, this unleashednumerous attacks on the credibility of the climatescience community and cast a shadow on IPCC’scredibility. The build-up to the Copenhagenconference had raised strong hopes for internationalpolitical negotiations but it closed without a clearpost-Kyoto deal because climate change no longerseemed a major priority for most countries.The Atmosphere team decided to rethink theexhibition concept, which had been to “change theway people think, talk and act around climatechange”. Instead, they thought they should stepaside from general debate about climate changeand focus on delivering the science. This wasreinforced by discovering more about audiences’levels of knowledge. The team had assumed thepublic knew the scientific basics so that the focuscould be on the broad political, social andeconomic issues. A study by the Audience Researchteam showed visitors did not understand someplanned contents demonstrating human causes ofclimate change. Moreover, evaluation of ‘Prove it!’showed that visitors feel there is a lack of evidencein the exhibition’s content. They “want access to in-depth scientific evidence that supports climatechange theory and explains the science andprocesses behind any statements that are made”
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.
Learning on toadstools at the ‘Prove It!’ exhibit, The Science Museum, South Kensington, UK
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Bradburne, J. M. (1998). "Dinosaurs and white elephants: the science center in the twenty-first century." Public Understanding of Science 7(3): 237-235.Einsiedel, A. A. and E. F. Einsiedel (2004). Museums as Agora: Diversifying Approaches to Engaging Publics in Research. Creating Connections. Museums and the Public Understandingof Current Research. D. Chittenden, G. Farmelo and B. V. Lewenstein. Walnut Creek, AltaMira Press: 73-86.Cameron, F. (2005). “Contentiousness and shifting knowledge paradigms: The roles of history and science museums in contemporary societies.” Museum Management andCuratorship 3: 213-233.
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This was stated in the Toronto declaration as mentioned by Andrea Bandelli in a previous ECSITE newsletter issue. Brandelli, A. (2010). "Real participation: from fear to trust." EcsiteNewsletter 82: 2-3.
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« Scpetics hijack environement poll » The Sunday Telepgraph, 29th October 2009.
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Mazda, X. (2004). Dangerous Ground? Public Engagement with Scientific Controversy. Creating Connections. Museums and the Public Understanding of Current Research. D.Chittenden, G. Farmelo and B. V. Lewenstein. Walnut Creek, AltaMira Press: 127-144.
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Emails of researchers at the University of East Anglia were hacked and their messages made public. Some were speaking about a “trick” climate model scientists would use. The presscoverage was important and caused a scandal.
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Online Evaluation, “Prove it!” website, November 2009, Science Museum.

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