This week, I listened to the new podcast episode of Radiolab, my favorite NPR show. The podcast featured the two hosts, Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, speaking to a crowd about their unique partnership. For those who haven't listened, Radiolab is an hour-long popular science show that looks in-depth at topics like "emergence," "time," and "mortality" from a range of scientific perspectives. Radiolab does what I hope all great museum exhibitions can do--take a deep topic and make it compelling on many levels. Near the end of the talk, an audience member asked,
How do you choose which level to approach a topic when your listeners range from people who know nothing to people who know all too much?and at minute 15:30, partway through the answer, Robert said something extraordinary:
I think we both start also as virgins. We don't know really what we're talking about at the beginning--we find out along the way. And we make that very clear. So we never pretend to anybody that we're scholars cause we're not. And we do represent ourselves as novices, which is a good thing. It is a good thing in a couple of ways. First, it means we can say, "what?!" honestly. And the second thing: "can you explain that again?" honestly. And then the third thing is, it allows us to challenge these people as though we were ordinary, curious folks.Effectively, Robert is saying that Radiolab isn't just a show where the hosts have conversations with scientists. It's a show where the hosts model a way for YOU to have conversations with scientists, a way for regular people to engage with experts rather than deferring to or ignoring them.
We have a show coming up right now about synthetic biology, where engineers are building life forms that are new to existence, new to the history of life. And they're doing it quite... aggressively. And we, we yell at them and we fight with them and we argue with them, and they give right back. But we're trying to model a kind of conversation with important people, powerful people, but particularly knowledgeable people, where we say--YOU can go up to a person with a lot of knowledge and ask him "why?," ask him "how does he know that?" Tell him, stop! Ask him why he keeps going. And get away with it. And that's important.
To do this kind of modeling, Robert and Jad actively portray themselves as novices. They make themselves look stupid so we don't have to feel that way. They articulate the basic questions and knee-jerk reactions in our own minds, carrying us deep into the content from a common starting place. By humbling themselves in this way, they create a powerful learning experience. Robert and Jad aren't content experts, but they are interpretative experts, skilled interviewers and producers. And those skills drove the cultivation of personae that are wonderfully accessible.
Which brings me to museums and how we present content. Reread the question and substitute the word "visitors" for "listeners." Reread Robert's response. Could you imagine a curator, designer, or museum educator speaking this way about an exhibition? Ever?
After listening to this clip a few times, I wondered: what if museums dropped the authoritative voice, the cultural voice, the friendly teacher voice, and adopted a novice voice? What would it feel like to read labels that challenge the information provided or acknowledge the questions in everyone's head: How did they get this giant sculpture in here? Why does anyone care about this dead stuff? Why is there lots of snow if global warming is happening?
My feeling on this is mixed. I love the Radiolab experience, but I wonder how much the success of the "novice voice" is contingent on the context of conversation. A novice challenging and discussing with an expert is interesting. A novice alone on an exhibit panel could be as isolating as any other single exhibit voice, and potentially more annoying.
So maybe it isn't just about novice voice. Maybe it's about interplay among many voices and levels of expertise. Should museum content and exhibit labels use dialog more heavily? One of the most popular interactives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the Real Cost Cafe, in which visitors select fish from a menu and hear their choices dissected in terms of environmental impact on video by a waitress, a cook, and a dishwasher in a restaurant. It's not the most fun game ever. It's engaging because the content is presented as a dialog among characters. The characters aren't expert scientists or fish researchers. They are knowledgeable, normal, relatable folks.
Like Radiolab, the Real Cost Cafe models a conversation on a contentious topic. Perhaps its greatest strength is this modeling, this suggestion that environmental food choices are worth discussing at the dinner table. That it's ok to have strong opinions, ok not to provide a balanced take on everything. This is what Radiolab does so well--acknowledges that science is not an objective abstraction. It's something worth getting worked up about, confused about, passionate about.
Isn't that what we want to model for museum visitors about our own content? What's the difference between a label that models a kind of content engagement and one that purports to provide that engagement?