Thursday, October 26, 2017

Thinks and Links: Reflecting on the ASTC 2017 Conference

The 2017 ASTC (Association of Science-Technology Centers) Conference just wrapped up in San Jose, California.

As you might expect, given the audience of science-minded folks hunkering down in the heart of Silicon Valley there was much discussion of tech, but I was also left with the feeling that the Science Center field (and perhaps the entire museum and cultural sector) is in a time of introspection and re-evaluation.

Saturday, October 21st, the first day of the Conference, got off to a bit of a rocky start with the looongest opening keynote ceremony ever --- clocking in at over 3 hours!  Despite the mind (and butt!) numbing duration, there were some bright spots including outgoing Board Chair Linda Conlon giving an impassioned speech entitled, Scientific Evidence Is Proving No Match for Emotionalism

The opening ceremonies concluded on a high note --- a conversation with Brendan IribeCEO at Oculus VR, who shared his early experiences and inspirations designing exhibits for the Tech Museum in San Jose. He also discussed his initiative called Virtual Science Center.

Sessions on Saturday continued this tech/society trend with topics ranging from how to use digital games as audience engagement tools to "smart exhibits" to environmental sustainability actions in museums.  I especially enjoyed a practical session called "Under Pressure" all about demonstrations with air.

Paul Taylor shows off the Giant Eye/Air Pressure trick.
Saturday night ended with a smashing party courtesy of our hosts, The Tech Museum of Innovation.  (where we saw The Tech's newest exhibition, Body Worlds Decoded.)

Sunday morning dawned with an interesting experiment, The Distributed ASTC Conference.  This was a live conversation with speakers in San Jose, as well as four Science Centers in the Middle East on the topic of how truth and science have intersected and diverged over time --- a true mix of technology and society!  I applaud ASTC for giving new formats like this a try.

Sessions on Sunday continued a broad range of tech and public-focused topics including STEM Community Partnerships, The Power of Narrative, and Using Role-Playing Games to Build Community Disaster Resilience.

I was fortunate to moderate a set of "Flash" (10 minutes or less) Sessions on "Public Engagement with Scientific Methods" showing creative ways to help communities engage with scientists and data.  One of the presenters, Rik Panganiban from the California Academy of Sciences, provided this helpful link for tips on setting up a Science Game Jam at your museum.

Another new Conference approach this year was a "Side Talks" area set up near the registration desk where session presenters or conference attendees could sign up for blocks of time to discuss current topics of interest with like-minded attendees.  Our Flash Talks presenters moved to the Side Talks area with many attendees from our session to continue the conversations.  I think once ASTC Conference attendees get used to the idea of Side Talks, some very fruitful conversations will happen here. (As we all know, the learning happens outside sessions as well!)

On Sunday afternoon I was delighted to be one of the presenters on panel on Digital Exhibit Fails & Wins.  A great range of wins and fails were shown, but I was struck by three commonalities in all the "winning" examples of digital exhibits and interfaces discussed:

1) Testing and iteration with visitors produced the best digital exhibits.

2) Digital exhibits that promote interaction and conversation are the most popular and memorable.

3) Novel/Surprising Interfaces. (Think non-screen and iPad approaches.)

Dave Patten from Science Museum London shows a slide with the Queen's
Security Detail trying out a new interactive before a Royal opening ceremony.

As is often the case at conferences, there are so many good choices for sessions that you can't get to all of them.  That was certainly my problem on Monday the 23rd.  While I enjoyed the session I attended on "Creative Ways to Engage the Public with Climate Change" (see resource links in the image below) I also would have wanted to attend "Happy Birthday Frankenstein!" about using the 200th anniversary to explore the science and the world behind the classic book, as well as "Closing the Play Gap for Social Change." (Can any ExhibiTricks readers who attended these sessions share some thoughts in the "Comments" section below this post?)

The Closing Keynote Session on Monday provided a dialogue on how Science Centers can better serve their communities and what that really means.  I was especially struck by the challenges presented by Emily Dawson's research (as she Skyped in from the UK.)  

Check out Emily's Twitter account, and also her paper "Social justice and out-of-school science learning: Exploring equity in science television, science clubs and maker spaces."

Emily Dawson Skyping in from the UK

One of my favorite sessions on Monday was headed up by Tom Rockwell of the Exploratorium and dealt with the notion of "hybrid" organizations.  Tom brilliantly illustrated the audience discussion as a wireless microphone was passed around.  (You can see the end results below.)

I managed to finish up my ASTC trip to San Jose by zipping over to San Francisco to see the Exploratorium and SF MoMA before my redeye back to New York.  It was great to see some of the exhibit developers and "shop rats" while at Explo, and none more so than the ever-enthusiastic and resourceful Tom Tompkins who shared one of his latest finds, with me.

Did you attend #ASTC2017?  If so, feel free to share some of your own thoughts and takeaways in the "Comments" section below!

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Museum + Exhibit + Design Inspiration: Cavalry 360°

Architecture studio NEON created a site-specific installation called Cavalry 360° at the Chesters Roman Fort, in the north of England. The piece (pictured at the top of this post and in the YouTube video at the end) is a large circle in which visitors can stand and hear the simulated sound of 500 cavalry horses galloping, as a reminder of the armies stationed at Hadrian's Wall in the 2nd century. 

One thing I especially like about the sculpture is that it uses wind energy to function. Comprised of 32 wind turbines, each of which has three arms with cups to catch the wind and power hundreds of "mini beaters," to create the sound of equine hoofs in a constantly changing pattern. The beaters are arranged to mimic a "Turma," a term in Latin term that refers to a Byzantine cavalry group of 30 horses.  Visitors experience the beaters working at differing speeds as the wind rises and falls – and hear the sounds of horses galloping or trotting. 

English Heritage commissioned Cavalry 360° in the hopes that the unique kinetic piece, placed in the remarkable historic setting along Hadrian’s Wall, will be both thought-provoking and fun. It is designed to connect the viewer with the environment, to invite people to look through the work at the landscape beyond, and to pick up the sound on the wind.

Mark Nixon, who owns NEON, explained that the installation is meant to make people consider the Roman conquerors who rode over the land almost 2,000 years ago:

"This was an incredibly ambitious and challenging brief that called for a project that would retell the story of the Chester’s Cavalry in a way that would be engaging and exciting as well as drawing a new audience to the fort. The challenge of describing something that was no longer physically there, the Cavalry - and acknowledging the way the horse changed mankind’s relationship to the landscape were key to our approach for the commission. Like written fiction, we were excited to offer a half description of the subject as a means of evoking the imagination of the viewer to fill in the gaps. The horse as a creature evokes a wide range of visual and audial motifs that gave us a rich palette from which to draw on.”

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Friday, October 6, 2017

One Way to Address the Museum "Pay Problem" (TODAY!)

Although many museums and not-for-profit organizations have underpaid (and it could be argued, undervalued) their staff for years, there has been a recent flurry of online articles bemoaning this fact --- including here on the ExhibiTricks blog, at AAM's Alliance Labs blog, and at the Nonprofit: AF blog.

"Why all this sudden interest?" you may ask.  "Nobody goes into museum or non-profit work for a big payday."

That's true, to an extent, but deliberately inadequate pay contributes to the museum world's lack of diversity, and, for organizations that like to place their high-minded social credentials front and center, it is just downright demeaning and unfair to hard-working staff not to pay them a living wage.

So what to do?  (Besides the usual rationalizing and hand-wringing and pearl-clutching so common in the non-profit world?)

HERE'S MY SIMPLE SUGGESTION: Refuse to publish help wanted ads from museums and other cultural institutions that do not list clear salary ranges in their job postings, or from those organizations that offer unpaid "internships."

That's it.

Personally, if I ran the circus, I would also not accredit such organizations or let their representatives present at professional conferences, but let's start with baby steps and something simple(r) to implement.

If you'd like the museum world to start cleaning up its classified ads, and by extension its pay problem, then I urge you to email and speak with the leaders of every museum organization you know.  I've listed a few organizations and their leaders (with links to their emails) below to get you started.

You could just write something like: "As a member concerned with fair pay and diversity in the museum field, I ask you to stop accepting job ads that do not list clear pay ranges or ads for unpaid internships."  (Feel free to cut-and-paste this text directly into your own email.)

I am disheartened that we are losing emerging and diverse members of the museum profession because of poor pay and bogus unpaid work situations.  So let's stop hiding and rationalizing and start doing something.  I've just sent emails to everyone listed below, won't you join me?


American Alliance of Museums (AAM):  Laura Lott

Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC): Gillian Thomas

Association of Children's Museums (ACM): Laura Huerta Migus

American Association for State and Local History (AASLH): John Dichtl

New England Museum Association (NEMA): Dan Yaeger

Editor's Update: The New York City Museum Educator's Roundtable (NYCMER) is active on this front and does not need to be encouraged via emails.  Also the website now requires that all postings list salary ranges.

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