Leadership, and the Science Museum

Glenn Murphy’s article in the Guardian this morning points to the Science Museum as an exemplar of science engagement, asserting that their learning teams are “internationally renowned masters of inspiration and discovery-based learning.” Are they?

Frankly, it’s hard to say. I grew up in the North of England, so I’ve no particular affection for the Science Museum. They have a terrific collection which I enjoy exploring, but here we’re talking about their engagement and outreach work, not their museum/collections work. I came to the wider STEM engagement world after a decade or so in science broadcasting. In the years since I moved across, the impact of the Science Museum on my thinking has been, well, minimal.

Most of the big science centres have hosted my workshops or employed my services, which isn’t necessarily a mark of anything other than gullibility on their part, but at least means I have a working relationship with them. I know their staff, and talk industry politics, policy, and practice with them on a regular basis. We share knowledge and experience through the mailing list of the British Interactive Group, on which all major national centres are active… with the exception, notably, of the Science Museum. I count three messages from them in the last two years; compare with 80+ for Techniquest, 100+ for the Centre for Life, and 70+ from commercial provider Science Made Simple (and… er… 230 from me and even more from Ian Russell. Oops).

These same contributors are notable by their active part organising sessions at the practitioners’ conference, the BIG Event – a glance through the programme will show much participation from the likes of Thinktank and Glasgow Science Centre also. Science Oxford, meanwhile, seems to have a deliberate policy of aiming for the most memorable sessions in any given year.

Traditionally, the Science Museum don’t much engage with this community. They do their own thing, but they don’t talk to us. Part of this is undoubtedly down to a cliquiness – perceived or actual – of the BIG regulars, but it’s a few years since the Science Museum re-engaged with BIG, and their level of participation is starting to look odd. It’s not just a BIG thing, either, as they’re not noticeably involved with next week’s British Science Association Science Communication Conference.

Hence: the Science Museum are not, one would have to say, significant behind-the-scenes contributors to the STEM engagement community, at least within the UK. I could have learned about some of their projects if I’d been willing to trek to Milan for the ECSITE conference the other week, but the Science Museum’s participation in the UK scene appears to be minimal.

Surprised? Me too.

I’m delighted, therefore, that they’re delivering one of their shows at the BIG Event this year. It’s high time we saw them engage with their peers and fellow practitioners, discuss approaches and insights, and contribute to the advancement of the sector.

In particular, there’s a standard conception in STEM engagement that ‘it would all be OK if only we were properly funded.’ This is, I believe, dangerously lazy thinking, and the Science Museum could contribute significantly by showing that even with core funding, centres must continue to grapple with quality and development issues.

They’re also one of the few centres to dip their toes into the murky waters of online media, but there’s little sign they’re willing to share any lessons they may have learned or challenges they may be facing with the wider sector. Business imperative, or missed opportunity?

I’m not sure we’d trust the Science Museum to lead the community – those of us outside the capital are fed up of London-centric management – but let’s go for participation, shall we? We can haggle about leadership later, once we’ve established who leads at what.

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