Rebooting Science Museums for the 21st Century
Friday, August 23, 2013
Science and natural history museums aren't just dioramas and dusty skeletons anymore. Around the world, museum directors are reinventing their spaces for the 21st century, taking cues from art galleries and science cafes, hackerspaces and working labs — even the great outdoors.
IRA FLATOW, HOST:
When you last visited your local science museum, what did you see? Those cavernous dark halls, the dinosaurs, a bone frozen into place. The dioramas of stuffed big-horn sheep in a painted habitat. We all know of those. At least that might be how you remember it. But museum directors today are reimagining that Victorian-era museum, reimagining it for the 21st century. They envision using everything from smartphone apps to walk-through labs and meet and greet with actual scientists.
And it's not just the big boys. Small science centers with no permanent collection, no fossils or artifacts are cropping up, like the Science Gallery in Dublin which has now become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ireland. Almost as many visitors as the Blarney Stone. What's the secret? That's what we're going to be talking about. We're going to be exploring the answer with a virtual tour of the museum of the future, no museum headsets required.
Let me introduce my guests. Scott Sampson is the vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
SCOTT SAMPSON: You betcha, Ira.
FLATOW: Welcome. Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ian Brunswick is the exhibition and events manager at Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
IAN BRUNSWICK: Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: Let me talk to you first. Science Gallery is one of the top tourist attractions in Ireland?
FLATOW: Why is that?
BRUNSWICK: It's almost kind of surprising to us in a way because we're only five years old now and I think part of the attraction is, like you said, we kind of fit into a different category. We're not just a science center, we're not just an art gallery; we're a bit of both and we don't have a permanent collection, so things are always changing.
In a nutshell, we develop four exhibitions a year and over 100 events, so what we do is accessible to everyone and it's always different. So if you came back many times a year, which we found a lot of our visitors do, you're going to see something different all the time and it's very easy to get involved. And it's not very hard to get involved with themes like, you know, oscillations or music in the body or infection.
You know, that's the kind of topic we attack and we've really found there seems to be a boundless enthusiasm for where art and science collide; both from the science community, but also from the art community. So it's going really well and we're actually expanding even internationally, so it's going terrific, really.
FLATOW: So do you believe that the natural history museum concept that we know of today is basically dead?
BRUNSWICK: I wouldn't say - no. I wouldn't say it's dead, because, I mean, in fact we looked to, you know, a lot of museums for new ideas, you know. Innovations are happening everywhere, but I think everybody agrees there's a shift changing in what large museums are trying to do, but also very small institutions like Science Gallery are very nimble, you know. We don't have a long history that we have to change, so no, the archives, you know, that role of the museum is not dead, but the ability for a kind of science center to be extremely modern and changing all the time and involve the visitor heavily in the sort of, even the production of what's going on, that's a new thing that I think we're going to see innovation both within big museums but also in, especially in small science centers like Science Gallery.
FLATOW: Small, nimble places. We're going to take a break and come back, talk lots more, continue our virtual tour of the science museum, science center of the 21st century. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the science museum of the 21st century. What should it look like, how is it developing? Talking with Scott Sampson of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Kirk Johnson of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, Ian Brunswick of the Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland.
Let me ask you, Scott, because the last time we talked you were on a tour of science museums on the West Coast gathering ideas for the future. Where do you see science museums now? Is it very much the Science Gallery model or something else?
SAMPSON: Yeah, Ira, I think we're moving to something else. I think the old cabinets of curiosity's approach to museums, it's not dead but it's struggling and museums are working hard to reinvent themselves. I think because of a couple of external pressures: One from the audience. The audience has changed. The audience is no longer interested in a one-way flow of information from the museum to them. They want to participate in the experience.
And the other thing is that the world has changed. That is, nature is changing and particularly nature and science museums need to adapt to address issues like climate change and species extinctions. And so we're struggling to find ways to do that too; some successful, some not so successful. So I think those are some of the major challenges we're facing right now.
FLATOW: Kirk Johnson at the Smithsonian, your museum is the most visited natural history museum in the world, over seven million visitors a year. What are you hoping happens when people step through these doors?
KIRK JOHNSON: Well, Ira, the thing that's really interesting about really big natural museums is the behind-the-scenes activities, the huge number of scientists making discoveries, the huge collections. And we have over 200 scientists and 127 million objects, so there's a really a huge behind-the-scenes world that large museums are not realizing they can tap using new kinds of technology, whether it's just the web or apps, and bring a lot of these things to the fore.
So, for example, we're looking at a website now called Encyclopedia of Life, which will have a web page for every single species on the planet and we already have 1.3 million pages on this site. So the idea is really liven up the backside of the house and what we're doing in the fall is opening a place called Curious, which will be a spot, where the three streams of this museum flow together, where the seven million visitors can rub shoulders with the scientists and the objects. So we're taking the traditional museum and basically flipping it inside out.
FLATOW: Do you believe that your role is one of informal education?
JOHNSON: Absolutely. I mean, it's one of the three bottom lines of natural history museums - the public, the collections and the research.
FLATOW: Ian, let me ask you again, give us an idea the sort of exhibits that you do at the Science Gallery. One exhibit is something called "Blood Wars."
BRUNSWICK: Yeah, "Blood Wars" is part of a bio-art exhibition that we did actually in conjunction with Symbiotica, who's a very cool lab in Australia. And "Blood Wars" was a piece in the show which we actually got phlebotomist in, took blood from visitors and the artists had proposed basically making up a tournament, like a bracket, and putting blood into these different categories and when blood types meet, they often - essentially try and eliminate each other and fight.
So she was having a tournament of different people's blood types, which from an artistic point of view was very interesting. She wanted to see how people reacted to this. Did this bring up, you know, ideas of superiority in blood or bad notions like that, or how did people observe this? So we get a lot of artists who take the theme in a really interesting direction we couldn't otherwise, and also that they couldn't if they didn't collaborate with scientists.
So that show which was called "Visceral," had a lot of bio art in it, which at the end of the show had to be disposed of. We had, you know, ethics approval, and we actually had to have a funeral for this show, which was terrific. But we didn't exactly know what to do, and that's what we encounter a lot. We encounter a lot of scenarios that there isn't a lot of precedent for, so - like in that scenario we invited our audience and said, what do you think we should do? What is the right thing to do, and we had a big talk with the curator and a cattle farmer came in, a geneticist came in and we eventually had to, you know, dispose of part of the artwork or kill them really, so that was a really boundary-pushing show that was really terrific.
FLATOW: So you believe that the melding science and the arts is something you'd like to see?
BRUNSWICK: Absolutely. I mean, I think the division between the two is, I think, an artificial division and I think one that we're seeing being overcome very quickly. People are very, very open-minded to see, you know, big art museums dealing with science and technology. MoMA was exhibiting games, you know, video games recently and a lot of science institutions want to engage with, you know, cultural and esthetic things in their institutions.
So, the division, I think, is arbitrary and we try and ignore it and really make art and science collide here, and our audience is up for that. They're up for being challenged and that's one thing that I think the 15 - 25 year old audience, which are not great museumgoers, frankly. That's one thing they're hungry for, is being challenged and not being told in a didactic way - you need to learn this when you leave. We hope they leave with more questions than answers. That's when we know we've done our job.
FLATOW: Scott Sampson, how do you react to that?
SAMPSON: Well, I would agree. I think that we really do need provoke people in new and interesting ways that art and science really are melded. And, in fact, we know that the old way of giving people information, just trying to stick facts in their head, doesn't really work, that you have to engage people emotionally. And of course the natural world can do that, but art can do that too. So art can be this amazing tool to actually educate people about science in the natural world.
FLATOW: You do talk about the natural world, you've talked about making the museum a portal to the natural world, to the great outdoors. What does that mean? Isn't a museum being indoors inherently not an outdoor activity?
SAMPSON: Well, I would actually say the future museum will be just that, focused on the future, that traditionally, natural history museums are about history, and in fact, to become relevant you really need to be about the present and the future, and I think museums are struggling with how to do that, but that's one way. And the way to combine the outdoor world is to sort of think about how would you actually blow out the walls and turn the museum from a destination into some kind of a trailhead.
And there's a number of ways of doing that, but one is with, you know, apps that can be on an iPhone or a cell phone, that you can use inside and outside the museum to individualize your experience. Another way is to just create information in the museum through exhibitions, both temporary and permanent, that encourage people to go outside with new eyes. So they see the same old world they see every day, but they have new eyes with which to see it. Hopefully eyes that allow them to see themselves as embedded within the natural world instead of outside and above it.
FLATOW: Well, you know, kids aren't spending much time outdoors now, are they?
SAMPSON: Yeah, the average kid spends about four minutes a day outdoors, which is over 90 percent less than their parents, and they look at screens seven to ten hours a day. So childhood has been transformed within a generation. And there's a few dangers here: One, is if we do this for another generation, we'll lose touch with sort of the sense of place and with nature in general, but this is critical not only for the health of the kids who are not, you know, we have attention deficit disorder, diabetes, obesity, all these things, but it's also threatening the health of the places that we live. I mean, let's be realistic. Why would we ever become sustainable unless we care about where we live and why would we ever care if we don't go outside?
FLATOW: Yeah. I'd like to bring out another guest now who's been connecting her museum guests with the scientists who want to study them. Don't worry, there's nothing involved here. No test. Beck Tench is the director of Innovation and Digital Engagement at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
BECK TENCH: Hi, Ira.
FLATOW: Hey there. So how do you connect to the visitors?
TENCH: So we designed these things called Experimonths. They're month-long science experiments where people sign up to do a daily challenge every day and by completing that challenge the information that they're gathering is inherently about themselves, but it is collected by researchers who are trying to play with that data in some way that's not as rigorous as maybe they would construct in their lab and design a science experiment around but...
FLATOW: Give me an example of one kind of experiment.
TENCH: So, for example, we did an Experimonth around mood, where people signed up to be texted every day for a month, five times a day, and the text message just said what's your mood, one low to ten high, and they would text back their mood. The researcher that we worked with designed a few interventions throughout the month that they participated in and she got around 18,000 data points to just study the mood of the participants and ask questions of that data.
FLATOW: Yeah, do the visitors, are they eager to do this?
TENCH: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, I think it takes a person who's particularly curious about their own life and their own motivations. Most of our Experimonths so far have been social science based, and so...
FLATOW: How long...
TENCH: Go ahead.
FLATOW: I'm sorry. I was going to ask you how long this has been going on for?
TENCH: So, Experimonth actually started in January of 2009 as a side project and we did our first at the museum in April of 2011. We're rolling out several starting in January. We'll be rolling out several in a row.
FLATOW: And do the scientists enjoy it also?
TENCH: Yeah, that's been our experience. Scientists, I feel like as they get educated and they narrow their focus to a specific discipline, it can be hard for them to introduce new ideas and play spaces into their work because of just the rigor that is required. So we've seen so far that scientists are very open to the idea of allowing us some play in their research.
FLATOW: Yeah, and you get the average person to interact with a real scientist. They've never seen one.
TENCH: Yeah, right. And also just to have conversations where both people...
TENCH: ...have something to say about it.
FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you very much for sharing your knowledge with us.
TENCH: You bet.
FLATOW: Good luck. Beck Tench, director of innovation and digital engagement. That's at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina. Let me ask my other guests. Scott Sampson, Kirk Johnson, Ian Brunswick, do you think that - can you bring your own scientists in to engage with the public? Is that a worthwhile effort?
BRUNSWICK: Yeah. I mean, at Science Gallery, we've done that quite a few times, and I think the scientists appreciate it both from an outreach point of view and getting huge datasets. Instead of 200 samples, they get 2,000. And the public - what better way to make people feel empowered and connected to science, rather than alienated and - from the whole process, than actually involving them in a scientific, you know, experiment.
That's a way to show them the process and say, you're actually a part of it. So I think that's a great thing, and we've done that at - seeing more of that will be terrific, you know?
FLATOW: Kirk Johnson?
JOHNSON: One of the things we found is that many people can't even name a living scientist, and we're finding that by putting scientists on the floor, that people get to realize they're actually just people like themselves. And often we'll put postdocs and grad students and even interns on the floor so that the visitors interacting with a scientist, sometimes are interacting, the people look just like them and kind of build a bridge between a kid in a museum and a scientist in a museum. And sometimes that's a pretty seamless continuum.
FLATOW: Let me go to the phones, to Chris(ph) in San Jose. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
CHRIS: Hi. Welcome. Thank you. Yeah. Yes. I'm the chair of the board of - for The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. Ira, I think you've been there.
CHRIS: And we're in the midst of a transformation ourselves from the science museum of what we all talk about to really challenging - the Silicon Valley challenge of being a resource for innovation.
So the mission we're on is to make the museum an engaging science experiment area by day for young adults and, by evening, be the hackerspace and the meetup space for older adults who are creating the future. And so the exhibits have changed from static science experiments to really Maker Faire-style, garage-style exhibits that are engaging on all levels, but also can be, in the evening, be the resource for innovation for new inventors in Silicon Valley.
FLATOW: That sounds very interesting. Yeah, we're going to actually talk about that a little more later. Thank you for calling, Chris. Good luck to you guys out there. Yeah. You know, hackerspaces and all kinds of stuff. People are turning - you hear science museums talking about, you know, at night, let's transform ourself(ph) into a meeting center for the community. You know, during the day, we do some exhibits. Maybe at night we have speakers in. We create some of the cafes and things like that for the evening for people to discuss science. Is that - Scott or Kirk?
SAMPSON: Absolutely. I think that that's a huge trend now in science. Traditionally, natural history museums miss that middle age cohort of sort of young adults, and these science lounges are a great way of doing that.
And getting back to the previous comment about citizen scientists, I think that's another of the major trends that's going on, that we can get people engaged not only in our buildings - whether that's preparing fossils or working - helping us in collections - but also outside, doing things like BioBlitzes where you get a whole suite of scientists together and trying to identify every species in a particular place like Central Park in New York...
SAMPSON: ...within a 24-hour period. And this is actually real science that's producing important data that scientists are now using to plot things like climate change effects on species and things like that.
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
So you want to make science museums more than just someplace you go once a month on a Sunday for an hour or two. You want to make it more friendly.
SAMPSON: Yeah. So that they're coming back on a regular basis, that it isn't the place you take your kids when they're in fourth grade and then the grandkids, et cetera, but rather it's changing all the time. Even the notion of permanent exhibits is being re-examined. How do we become flexible? How do we give an audience a different experience every time they walk inside the doors?
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Ian, you - how often do you change things? Do you need to change exhibits at the Science Gallery often?
BRUNSWICK: Yeah. I mean, we change them very rapidly. We have four-year, and, you know, it's only one at a time. So every two months, you know, you're going to get something. Every two-and-a-half months, you're going to get something entirely different. So I think that's spot-on.
You need it to be always changing and to be able to be up to date because if the museum is changing into a place which is dealing with future themes - you know, what's synthetic biology going to bring, what are changing climates going to bring - we need to be really up to date.
And it's very hard to make a museum exhibit which will last for five years and be current the whole time, you know, unless it's changing the whole time. So that's why we change what we're doing very quickly and the theme and who's involved so it can be very up to date, but also keep it social as well.
You know, people are going to be interested in what's very current, and I think, you know, we're talking about, you know, making these museums more social, kind of hackerspace kind of things. But that's really important because look at how often people go to their local science museums - some people once a year, unfortunately, some people once a decade, you know? But their coffee shop down the road, or their local cafe, that's maybe once a week.
You know, we need to flip that. And that's why, you know, at Science Gallery, our cafe is really good, has terrific coffee, a lot of people coming every day. But, you know, they come in for the coffee, and then they stick around. They meet somebody. They hear about an event. They come to a talk. There might be a lunchtime, you know, make session. There could be a performance or anything.
So changing that, you know, science center into a social space is really important to get people thinking about science from a, you know, a social, important point of view and making it a place they go, you know, as an elective. Fifteen to 25-year-olds are in charge of their own schedule, you know?
If they think of science museums as a place that their teachers take them, their parents take them, when they're 16, they're not going to go there anymore. So we're trying to be that place where you see two, you know, 16-year-olds on a date rather than a bunch of 14-year-olds on a school trip.
FLATOW: Interesting. Ian Brunswick, do you think there's something or sometimes a disconnect between how scientists want to communicate science and what the public is going to actually find interesting?
BRUNSWICK: I think there - you know, there is to a certain extent, but I think it's lessening. I think a lot of scientists are open to making it a two-way dialogue. You know, that's what's important. If we're talking about scientists communicating their research so that the public understand and then inherently agree with them, you know, that's an old sort of one-way, you know, mode of communication, that deficit model where it's the - the public don't know enough and we need to fill their brains up with the scientists', you know, correct opinions.
But I think that's kind of gone the way the dodo, and I think now we're looking towards where scientists have value in getting something out of the public. So we find a lot of scientists are really into it. And if you can deal with these themes before they're made into policy, you know, then there's some role for the public to do.
We're doing a show on synthetic biology, and it has a lot of designers saying, what are we going to do when these technologies are commonplace? And this is the time to be talking about it, not in 10 years when they're out there and, you know, we don't have a chance to decide, what does our society actually think about this?
FLATOW: Interesting. We're going to take a break, come back, talk lots more with Scott Sampson, Kirk Johnson, Ian Brunswick. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri, and join our Facebook page and also our website at sciencefriday.com for additional discussions. We're going to take a break, a short one. Stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking about the future of science museums with my guests: Scott Sampson of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Kirk Johnson of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Ian Brunswick of the Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.
Let me ask you, Kirk. Do you think, you know, there have been studies that show that most people get their science education outside of the classrooms now, in an informal science education settings like museums. Do you think museums should tackle current issues like global warming or other things like that? Or is that - do you think that's someone else's job?
JOHNSON: No. Museums are places where the science in the day should be on display and accessed. I mean, we have exhibit right now called Genome, which is about the recent - the completion of the human genome project and that's amazing to watch. People who have heard the word genome or genomics or DNA actually engage with the subject matter and think about what genetically modified organisms mean and how it might apply to them for personalized medicines. There's lots of questions in the public about things like climate change or fracking, and there must be tools for them to get reliable, non-biased information. Science museums are great places for that.
FLATOW: Do you agree with that Scott?
SAMPSON: I absolutely do, with the exception that I think we should - we need to be careful not to be giving a doom-and-gloom message to kids. I think one of the failures of environmentalism is that it really has been all about information and all about bad news, and we really need to engage kids in the natural world and in nature before we give them all these bad news.
So if we can get people to care about nature, that's a really great place to start. But ultimately, we absolutely need to have these discussions. I mean, nature and science museums sit at the nexus of sort of nature and the general public. And if we aren't talking about issues like climate change and species extinction, then really, who should be doing that?
FLATOW: Ian Brunswick, how do you find what is interesting to 25-year-olds?
BRUNSWICK: That's a good question. I mean, we have kind of an open door policy to a certain extent. We have lots of brainstorms with our audience. We have a group of sort of 50 people, our brain trust, our Leonardo Group, who we get together twice a year and say, you know, give us your crazy ideas. We're going to look at all of them.
And we come up with, you know, big themes. Anything from like - for next year, we're talking about failure as a team. How do we talk about that in a new kind of point of view or how do we talk about genetically modified organisms or how do we talk about climate change in a new way, like you said, in a way that isn't wordy and preachy but is actually interesting and makes a crisis into an opportunity.
So we also - we have an open-door policy to people who want to address a theme with maybe an event and they come up and say, I have nowhere to do this but I have a great idea, and we work with them. You know, enabling our community to contribute to what we do, lets us do so, so much more. So we kind of, you know, let them produce events in partnership with us and get involved with the exhibition. A lot of scientists have suggested themes and they became curators on an exhibition.
FLATOW: Can you get local media involved with you?
BRUNSWICK: Yeah. I mean, we also do - we're involved with radio, TV. We got involved with a phone company to do an experiment via text. So - but there's a lot of pick up on the media. And you can really - you can engage a wide swath when you're dealing with art, science and lots of different themes. You can, you know, deal with specialists, but you can also deal with sort of a general interest. I think, you know, tackling these big themes in a way that makes it approachable to everyone means that you don't alienate anyone, and you don't only preach to convert the people who want to hear more about science.
FLATOW: Is there a way, gentlemen, all of you, to bring social media into this? Everybody has their cellphones. They have Facebook, whatever. Can you integrate that as citizen scientists somehow into your own science museums?
JOHNSON: In many different ways, Ira. We've got, you know, all of the scientists now are tweeting and they got followers. We're doing things with apps that allow us to do sciences and dump data straight into databases and access data. I mean this - iPhones are phenomenal devices. They basically put the knowledge to the world at the fingertips of everybody of the world.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Anyone else? Scott.
SAMPSON: Yeah. And I would jump in on that too. The - one of the institutions that we visited on our travels is the Cleveland Museum of Art, and they perhaps gone further than any other museum that I know of in integrating technology. and you can walk in with your iPad, look at any object in their collection, put that onto your iPad, curate your own exhibition effectively on the iPad, send that out to the world via Facebook or Twitter. You can email people with what you're finding.
And so all of the content that you're creating or that you're witnessing in the museum, you get to interact with in a new way and then share it with the world. And I think this may be another wave of the future of how museums will change to use technology to really individualize the museum experience because previously, it was the same content to everybody and now, you can really tailor it to individuals.
BRUNSWICK: Yeah, and we use it a lot. I agree, it's a great tool. I suppose we use it a bit more in a conversational sense, trying to sort of raise sometimes controversial, you know, topics and see how our audience - Twitter is great for that, finding out how they feel very quickly. Or sometimes we've been stuck for a piece of exhibited and actually tweeted, does anyone know where we can get a classic phone booth? And we had a lot of people who actually sent us back pictures of - I've actually got one, you know, and I can loan it to you. So it's been really resourceful for us.
FLATOW: I have an old classic '48 RCA TV I can give to you. So we'll talk about that later.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. I want to bring on another guest who's helped San Francisco's Exploratorium pick up a few tricks from the do-it-yourself, hackerspace movement. Karen Wilkinson is director of the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
KAREN WILKINSON: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.
FLATOW: Well, what is a tinkering studio? Is it what it sounds like?
WILKINSON: Well, a tinkering studio is a physical space, a place where people get to tinker, where we hope to extend the exhibit experience in a new way. We really want people to get involved. In the Exploratorium itself, it's situated directly across from our machine shop, which is where we make the place. So that was no coincidence in kind of situating it there.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So people come in and it's - is it like a hackerspace?
WILKINSON: Well, yeah, it's got aspects of that. I mean, we really believe that tinkering is a serious endeavor, and we want to present scientific content in a way that makes it more personal and approachable, sometimes whimsical and delightful. I can give you an example.
FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.
WILKINSON: We're kind of looking across the idea of circuits right now. And last week, we were working with micro LEDs, slug tape and paper engineering techniques to make light-up pop-up cards. And then we're also doing things like pushing traditional ideas of crafting. Right now, today, we're doing felting - needle felting where you're using conductive threads and LEDs. So this idea of the art and science combining, or those disciplines blurring that other folks have been mentioning, is something we also take very seriously.
We bring artists and scientists and makers in residence with us to kind of extend the community of what we offer, but also get people kind of shoulder to shoulder with makers around the world but also just right next door.
FLATOW: Interesting. And so instead of maybe taking your kid out to make pottery at one of those pottery stores, you might take them over to the Exploratorium or another museum to do some conductive thread weaving.
WILKINSON: Yes, that's right.
FLATOW: How do you - how do people find out about these things?
WILKINSON: Well, we use the blog to tell people kind of what's going on and word of mouth. Interestingly, I find kind of with maker fairs and the hacker community in general, people are really craving community, a place to come and try things out together.
So we try to offer programs, classes and workshops and things for - just for folks that happen to show up on a Saturday. We really - that's probably the newest thing about The Tinkering Studio is we want something that is changing, as Ian was mentioning too, every time you come.
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, let me follow that thread a little bit more. Let me ask all of you. In this age, people seem to have very short attention spans. Do you have to craft new exhibits that they - you know, when I go to a museum I want to read everything I can and sit there and absorb the exhibit or the - what I'm looking at. But I'm an old guy. So do you have to craft new ones for shorter attention spans?
BRUNSWICK: Well, I think, you know, there's a bit of both. You do, to a certain extent, but also it depends, you know, how you're trying to go about it. If you're trying to make a social - how long do you want to talk with someone at a cocktail party for, you know, like - so, you know, if that's the length of your engagement, you may be, you know, design the exhibition around that. But it depends - are you having somebody - are you going to a museum once a year, like I said, or you're going back there a lot? Because you can have it in small doses if you're going back there.
So I think it calls in to question the whole model of how long do you have these people's attention for, and are they committed to the place and that they feel connected to it. So if they do then maybe you get them very often for just a little bit. Fifteen minutes of your attention is fine if I've got it five, 10 times a year.
JOHNSON: We also have extraordinarily diverse audiences though, families with children of all ages and multiple generations. So the exhibits have to be very multi-purpose. And we often tier the content so you can sample it at various levels. And it's more of a smorgasbord than a meal.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me go to the phones: 1-800-989-8255. Allan in Anchorage. Hi, Allan. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
ALLAN: Hi, Ira. I'm a big fan of the show. Thanks for taking my call.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
ALLAN: I just got a quick question. I heard your guest make a comment earlier that he'd like to make museums really accessible and kind of like a coffee shop, where you go there, you know, a lot more often than people normally do. And I was just wondering, if you want that kind of accessibility, how do you make it affordable because, you know, a visit to a museum can be, you know, $15 or $20 or whatever. And if you want to do that several times, you know, again and again, how do you make it affordable to the general public and especially when you have, you know, families going there? So yeah, I was just kind of wondering.
FLATOW: Right. Good...
BRUNSWICK: Yeah, that's a really good question. I mean, from our own science gallery, you know, we're part of Trinity College Dublin so, you know, we are doing a service to them and to Dublin. So we have a lot of support from private funders, from - some from the government but a lot from, you know, the college and the other entities. So we're free entry. And there's going to be a new science gallery opening at King's College London, and that's going to be free entry. And we're even looking into - we've talked about opening one in New York.
And that free-entry model, I think, is kind of - is probably, you know, somewhat required to have people have that, you know, brief and frequent interaction. So - but I know it's a tough time for museums in, you know, both in Europe and in North America. So I don't know how that can work everywhere but we try and keep it free so that it's open to everybody.
ALLAN: Thanks for answering my question. Have a good day.
FLATOW: Thank you. Thank you. Karen Wilkinson, I know that your museum is - the Exploratorium is facing financial challenges. I read that they just laid off 20 percent of its staff.
WILKINSON: We are, yes. It's a tough time for us, for sure. And I think, ironically, this very issue is something The Tinkering Studio is struggling with. We are seeing our members come again and again, even in the short time we've been open. So for us, it's not necessarily kind of an access problem that we're seeing. We're seeing folks wanting to come back again and again. But the layoffs, you know, I think it's something to watch.
We're really - I think at the core, The Exploratorium is really a learning organization. I mean, if I've learned anything since I've been here, it's that, you know, we will - we're going to get pass this. And we were 44 years in our old place and only four months in the new one. So it's still kind of early to predict what will happen at new here.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
Now, well, you don't have to worry about that at the Smithsonian, Kirk Johnson, about admissions because it's free.
JOHNSON: Well, that's one of the great things because we can welcome everybody in, and we're sort of the nation's museum as a result. But we're facing the sequester like everyone else, so there are challenges on that side as well.
SAMPSON: And if I could jump in here, Ira.
SAMPSON: I think that the caller hit on one of the great problems that's facing science and nature museums around the country. And that is making these museums for everyone, not just white affluent people, but for all diverse audiences from all socioeconomic backgrounds. And we're doing everything we can to try and attract audiences. So, for example, in Denver, they have this terrific system. It's a publicly funded tax-based system called the Science and Cultural Facilities District, where a portion of tax moneys goes toward supporting cultural institutions like the Nature and Science Museum. And this allows us to have free days so where anybody can come in.
We also do things where sometimes the entry will be free and we'll charge for a special exhibition, so that allows us to still make money. So I think museums are looking at a lot of different economic models, in part to stay alive, but even more so, just to attract and really engage diverse audiences.
FLATOW: And how do you that? Would you have ideas on how to do that?
SAMPSON: Well, I think there's ideas around the country to do it. The Oakland Museum of California, for example, has a tremendous day, a Day of the Dead event that attracts thousands and thousands of people, not just from the Hispanic community but from a lot of diverse communities. And I think that's an example of the kinds of things that museums can do.
We need to go out to where the people are. Sometimes we need to leave our museums altogether and bring the kinds of things that we do out to the communities themselves and demonstrate to them that we have value. The other thing is to make the employees in the museum, the actual staff and volunteers, be diverse as well so that people see themselves when they walk inside the door.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're running out of time. I want to see if I can get to some more topics. And one topic I wanted to ask Ian Brunswick about is one of the exhibits I think is quite fascinating is your "Kiss Culture."
BRUNSWICK: Yeah. That was - the "Kiss Culture" is part of our "Infectious" exhibition, which luckily - or not luckily but I supposed it's very timely. It happens just around the time of the swine flu outbreak, so there was a lot of interest in an exhibition on infection, how things spread. And that was - it was a beautiful aesthetic because we had blood agar Petri dishes where people kissed them, and we put them up in the wall and they grew. And it was this huge mural of these lips, but it was kind of beautiful, a little bit disgusting because, you know, you would see all this bacteria on your lips sort of growing.
And, you know, people became part of the exhibition in that way. It was a small thing everybody did it at the beginning. But it was a lot because this topic, which deals with, you know, immunology viruses, bacteria, you know, health. Some people might not find it, you know, immediately engaging. But when they come in and they're suddenly part of the exhibition, they've kissed the wall and, you know, they're up there, they become the exhibitor, you know, in a way. They're almost a mini curator. So that was a nice way to get people involved. And we try to do that in a lot of shows, where we get them to be part of the exhibition.
FLATOW: But it also brings - gives them something to talk about when they leave.
BRUNSWICK: Or come back. I mean, hey, I'm going bring people back and show them my part of this exhibition. And that's what happens. We've had people bring people back and say, this is mine, you know, this is - I'm part of this, which is - it's really nice.
FLATOW: Yeah. And it is really involvement and actually, you know, people see science in action and they get to understand how they are part of a larger culture, so to speak.
FLATOW: Well, gentlemen, I want to thank you all for taking time to be with us today. This is quite fascinating. Scott Sampson, vice president of the research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado; Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington; Ian Brunswick is the exhibition and events manager at the Science Gallery in Dublin; Karen Wilkinson, director of The Tinkering Studio at The Exploratorium in San Francisco. Good luck to you, Karen, and the museum. And we wish you all a good weekend, and thank you all for taking time to be with us today.
JOHNSON: Thanks, Ira.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
SAMPSON: Thanks, Ira.
FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today.
I'm Ira Flatow in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.View this story on npr.org