What is the Science Center World Congress? It's a question whose answer eluded me from the day I registered eight months ago through the first few days of the conference this week. Now, a day and two thousand miles from the closing ceremony, I realize I was lucky enough to participate in a very special kind of conference, one which deals specifically with the global politics of science centers. Most museum conferences are focused on professional learning and networking. The Science Center World Congress looked standard in makeup--keynotes, plenaries, parallel panels--and yet the content was made distinctly different by the people involved. In most sessions, I didn't learn new things to apply to my own museum practice; instead, I learned new things about what that practice looks like in different countries. I heard from CEOs whose center is the only one in their entire country (Chile), educators who work with students who have never encountered a computer before entering the science center (South Africa), and web managers whose sites are locked behind federal government firewalls and draconian restrictions (Australia).
And these conversations weren't exclusive to the program events. Casual discussions were steeped in government policies, national literacy rates, and worldwide attitudes towards science. It was not unusual for a person to pull out a document showing national dropout rates for their country in the middle of a cocktail party. It was a broadening, inspirational experience that made me question my own interest and focus, which is so distinctly based in a world that presumes a certain level of education and consumption.
It was also a frustrating experience. This supposedly international meeting of 400 people featured mostly white and western faces. The thread of difference ran through the conference--between the advancement of science in the north and south, between the needs of visitors in developed and undeveloped countries, between the relative impact of health and national politics on the way science is presented. Each session was required to include presenters from at least three continents, and frequently a person would stand up for their allotted 15 minutes and start by saying, "the previous speaker's challenges are interesting but they are entirely different from those in my center." Yes, this made for diverse and varied sessions, but it also left me with a feeling that we are missing or refusing the opportunity to have mutually productive exchanges about how this industry can support worldwide growth of informal science education. We talked alongside each other but rarely to and with each other.
The Congress exposed some places and issues in severe need of attention, but I fear these are indignations quickly raised, quickly forgotten. Climate change was a major topic of discussion in the keynotes (one CEO joked, "welcome to the world congress of climate change"), and both Steven Lewis and Sheila Watt-Cloutier spoke powerfully about places where human life is already threatened or wiped out due to global warming. They are places outside our daily lives--the Arctic, Papau New Guinea--and are easy, in some ways, to ignore or forget. The same is true for the political and educational challenges threatening science education worldwide. How much time will I spend considering the challenges faced by colleagues who serve publics totally outside my daily comprehension?
I believe that the standard format of the Congress was a severe impediment to potential growth on these topics. There was never a session in which a person could present challenges and then brainstorm with the whole group potential solutions and create partnerships to take home with them. There was never a sense that we were there to be accountable to and supportive of each other. One woman stood up at a keynote to tell the other delegates how expensive it had been for her to come to the Congress from Colombia and how desperately she wanted help and support from other centers to be able to serve her visitors. How are we addressing this woman? There was a carbon tax levied on all delegates; perhaps there should also be tiered registration rates based on national GDP or the distance between your museum and its closest science center neighbor.
There is one formal way to address her concerns and those raised by the Congress as a whole. The Congress ended with the presentation and signing of the Toronto Declaration, a document that spends its first two thirds patting ourselves on the back for what we already do and the second third committing to new initiatives to be assessed in 2011 at the next World Congress in Cape Town, South Africa. These include:
- ACCESS: advocating for all citizens of the world to have access to a science center in their own region
- DIALOGUE: actively promoting dialogue among citizens on issues related to science and society
- UN GOALS: identifying how science centers can contribute to the achievement of the UN Millenium Development Goals
We need to work together, really work, to come anywhere close to meeting these goals. I'm not sure what the global strategy looks like from here or how these goals will be achieved or attempted. I'm concerned that such a strategy may not exist. "Go home and try it" is not going to get us much closer by 2011. Frankly, I don't see the platform for the extension of the Congress, and in the spirit of dialogue, I'd like to help create a forum for these initiatives and related actions to exist outside the vacuum of international committees.
What is the roadmap for the continuance of the discussion started at the Science Center World Congress? I ask this both to the CEOs and international leaders who led the conference and to those of you who might want to be involved. If museums are really committed to changing the world, we need to move out of conference rooms and plenaries and start working. We need to create some collaborative structures (probably on the web) for continued dialogue and mutual support. Who's leading that charge? After all, a declaration is only as good as the revolution that follows it.