What does it take to make museums into agents of change?

The symposium Hot Science Global Citizens, in Sydney 5-6 May, explored new emerging possibilities for natural  history museums, science museums and science centres to act as resources, catalysts and agents of change in climate change debates and decision-making. A range of potential actions came up in academic paper presentations, responses, Roundtables, presentations of provocateurs, a unconference and a twitter feed. The applicability of the
suggested actions stretched far beyond the topic of climate change to more broadly touch upon the roles for public institutions in society. How can museums and other jointly funded institutions increase their relevance by providing cultural solutions to societal problems?

In short: Institutions have to be sensitive to hot topics and issues that concern common  futures and that are controversial and political. In addition they have to develop knowledge on contemporary and emerging cultural modalities and media to interact with different and heterogeneous publics. And not at least, they have to restructure themselves so that they can meet up with the expectations and responses that new ways of acting and communicating create. They have to be prepared to take risks and give up some of their
authority, to realize that knowledge is partial and always in the making. To use the theoretical terminology of the project behind the symposium: museums have the possibilities to turn into liquid institutions, to embody a range of capacities, desires, agents, powers and relations. They already interact, but can increasingly do so, with a range of equally liquid entities in emergent, not always foreseeable ways.

The presentations that produced the most vibrant debates in the Hot Science Global Citizens symposium were on modes for communication. Starting from his experience of the Shanghai world exhibition, Scott East, convincingly argued for multi-sensory spaces in which quality information and logic co-exist with more affective modes for communication. Giles Lane from the UK based organization Probosics invited museum professionals to make use of the capacities of artists to entice and challenge. Declan Kuch from Australian Youth Climate Coalition made the case for playful and disturbing provocations. Tara Morelos from d/lux/MediaArts enthusiastically presented the ways her organization experiments with mobile phones and augmented story telling outside the walls of museums.

Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum, with his long-term experience in using social media, provided a reflected stance towards digital communication. As soon as museums invite people to interact, they have to cater for the reactions. The web and mobiles demand
reciprocity; institutions need to respond to comments and posts, and this in turn demands internal re-organization and new ways of using resources.

Opening up museum spaces might also cause anxiety and tension. As stated in tweets at #hotscience: jarvanitakis: “The thing is folks, community is messy and needs much effort and desire. Nothing simple” and Lyndakelly61: “When consulting audiences remember it will be messy and is *their* process, not yours”.  Lynda Kelly wrote from her experiences from working with audiences at the Australian Museum and the director of this museum put it like this: “Museums have to learn to accommodate views they disagree upon”.

Already at the first day of the conference, museums consultant Elaine Gurian said that museums are safe places that have the capacity to harbor unsafe ideas, to put forward multiple perspectives and worldviews. In the afternoon the second day of the conference she nuanced this proposition by suggesting that it could turn into a great struggle. To retain public trust and at the same time make space for other voices and evaluate them could become the most current internal issue for museums.

Bodil Axelsson

Keywords, concepts and ideas from the symposium will be uploaded soon at http://www.hotscienceglobalcitizens.net/

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