Last week I attended the University Museums Group and University Museums in Scotland joint conference in Durham with the theme ‘Where science and society meet’. As well as being a university museum, The Polar Museum is embedded within an institute with an emphasis on scientific research (especially in the fields of snow and ice), and while many of the objects in the collections reflect the history of inhabitation or exploration in the polar regions, they also document the history of polar science, so this conference seemed particularly pertinent (especially as I’m currently looking through the scientific equipment for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project). The conference was centred around three key themes: 1. engaging with science research, 2. communicating the controversial, and 3. contemporary science in museums.
In the first session, discussions focused on two main challenges. Firstly, the way in which scientists and museums collaborate – and the need to understand the motivations of each, to develop a shared vision for communicating science, and to plan together in the long term so that things like exhibitions and other methods of public engagement are written into research bids. The second challenge is how to present museum collections alongside new discoveries and current research – museums are experts in objects so it is logical for exhibitions to be object-led but, at the same time, we need to recognise that collections are not always the best way to communicate research, especially if the connections between objects and research are forced.
The speakers in the second session all agreed that museums should be places to engage with controversial subjects in science, and discussion concentrated on where the museum should sit between ‘objective authority’ and ‘partisan lobbyist’. Museums are often perceived as an authority on certain subjects but it would be wrong to think that they can ever be entirely neutral – so perhaps we need to be transparent about the views that we present? The example of climate change was cited several times – both a key area of research at SPRI, and a subject we consider in the galleries at The Polar Museum.
In the third session, we explored the idea that contemporary science in the museum is not just about presenting the results of current scientific research in an exhibition context, but can also be about conducting the process of scientific research within the museum space, by carrying out data collection or data analysis with, or in front of, visitors (possibly somewhat challenging given that a lot of the research at SPRI is conducted a long long long way away from Cambridge!). And it’s not only about presenting the research, but also about presenting the researchers – through talks, workshops and events in the museum space and beyond.
Still being relatively new to The Polar Museum, the conference really helped me to understand and think about the museum in new ways (as well as having the added bonus of meeting people from a variety of museums who said ‘I think we’ve got some Antarctic material in our collections…’ – always good news for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project) . The Polar Museum is incredibly lucky to have a fantastic team of researchers working across a range of disciplines right on our doorstep, many of whom are really keen to get involved with the museum and its activities. We’re also lucky in that there are often quite simple connections to be made between our collections and the research that takes place within the Institute, especially relating to the historic roots of contemporary scientific research. However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t face many of the challenges raised at the conference and there are plenty of things for both the museum and the researchers at SPRI to think about in terms of engaging the public with current research in the sciences and beyond.