Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Send in the Science Clowns: A Frustrated Reaction to a Science Center Demonstration

Last week, I took in the new Galileo science show at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The show was a standard science center demonstration; about fifteen minutes, featuring a classic science experiment (all objects fall at the same rate) and a core message (when scientists are curious about something, they do an experiment to understand it). The presenter was by many measures the best in the business. He wrapped physical comedy, silly jokes, audience participation, and water balloons into a highly entertaining fifteen minutes. I used to perform these kinds of shows at the Capital Children’s Museum, and I was impressed by the whole production.

It also drove me nuts. The show was juvenile. It barely conveyed any science. It made Galileo into a pizza-loving buffoon with a bone to pick with Aristotle. The audience participants weren’t made to feel like scientists or special participants; they were treated like props to be splashed with water balloons. The whole thing felt more like a birthday party for eight year olds than anything else.

I felt highly conflicted watching this show. I understand the value of entertainment (and its positive impact on attentiveness), but the show’s level of silliness made me cringe with embarrassment. Three things in particular frustrated me:

  1. The show’s entertainment factor appeared to be used to apologize for science and turn it into something more "palatable." I felt it insulted my intelligence and my genuine interest in learning something about science. Does making science fun really require turning scientists into clowns? I can’t imagine seeing a show like this in any other cultural context. There’s no history museum doing a send-up of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There’s no art museum where Picasso is portrayed as a boozy goofball on the make. Entertainment and comedy can be fabulous presentation devices, but I don’t think we need them to mask the fact that science is serious, complicated, often funny business.
  2. The show was geared solely towards children. I saw the show with a large group of adults at an evening event, and it was painfully clear that the content and the form were not made for us. We all knew the outcome of the experiment presented, and yet there was no way for the presenter to break from script and give us a more complex view on Galileo’s experiment. If I was watching the show with my kids or chaperoning a group of students, I would have been pleased that the kids had a good time. But the show would have also confirmed that the science center was for children, not for me. It might also have made me feel that the science center was a place for fun, not so much for learning. Adults typically make up half of science center audiences. Shouldn’t these shows satisfy their interests as well?
  3. The show’s strong personality overwhelmed other more nuanced aspects of the science center. Live demos are just one part of a visit, but shows like this can have a domineering personality that imprints the whole visit. This show presented a version of the science center that was loud, overwhelming, goofy, and one-dimensional. It overwhelmed the more understated tone used in exhibit labels and by docents. Even though I thought some of the exhibits in the Space Odyssey gallery were quite nuanced and good, I left the museum with the show having the biggest impact on my visit.

I’m still grappling with this experience. I know how wonderful it feels as a presenter to captivate your audience and give them a good time. And people are more likely to internalize content messages when they are attentive and eager to follow the narrative of a presentation. Maybe attention is at such a premium that these kinds of measures are worth it to connect kids to science in an enjoyable way. Maybe I'm out of touch and my expectations are inappropriate. But the show felt like candy. People like candy—but that doesn’t mean it’s what you have to give them all the time. Sometimes, it can make them sick.

What do you think?

31 comments, add yours!:

Brad said...

Nina, this is so true! I saw this same demo at ASTC last October in Ft Worth. I too thought it was very juvenile and lacked a good science foundation.

I'm not sure I have anything more to add than what you've already said though. I'm just glad to hear someone else had the same reaction.

calebtr said...

One look at this picture tells me that science is for wizards. It is arcane. It is something that other people do.

Paul Orselli said...

Hi Nina,

Maybe it works for eight year olds!

But seriously, if you treat the topic as both "falling things" and "experimentation" rather than Galileo, can we generate suggestions for how to improve such a demo for the folks in Denver to consider?

(Think of it as thought experiment for your museum/bar project --- where "falling things" may be an ongoing consideration!)

Carly DeBoice said...

Thanks for the post. Like Brad, I also saw this one in Fort Worth, and we are currently looking to develop some new demonstrations the science centre in Calgary. We are struggling with the context to place many of the "don't try this at home" sort of thing.
One thought I have (as per Paul's comment) is to really consider if you NEED to use a demo for this "lesson." For this experiment, visitors could really try it themselves, and see what happens. It becomes more of a drop-in activity. As for how to make demos evoke a different emotion, hopefully we figure that out soon.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments.

I have often conflicted by this type of interpretation when it comes to living history. I love history but living history drives me nuts.

My first complaint about living history is that it can be really good or can be terrible. There is often no in-between. Usually the best is when there is a wall between the participants and the people of the past. A scene unfolds in front of an audience without a back and forth with the public. Smart interpretation often has a person [not in costume] introduce and conclude the scene.

Bad living history is characterized as the lowest common knowledge form. It goes for the cheap laugh instead of trying to educate. “Sir – I see you have come to the market today in your under clothes.”

My second complaint is that living history doesn’t provide enough historical context for visitors to feel comfortable enough to join the conversation. And the absolute worst thing that can happen is the living history person can correct or make the visitor look stupid because of their lack of knowledge.

Lastly, I feel that the living history is more satisfying for the employee than the visitor. We all need to fill our needs at work but it shouldn’t be at the expense of those who are there to learn.

I agree with Nina in these types of presentations are done as an apology. We are sorry our content is so boring so we are going to put someone in a funny looking wig to make it more interesting.

kellian said...

Really interesting thread! I think sometimes it takes educators a few spectacularly failed attempts at new things before you actually get something good, so I might just consider this show a necessary casualty of the creative process.

That said, I think I'm less disturbed by the fact that someone built and released this show than I am by the fact that two blog-posters here already saw it a year ago in Texas... which means either nobody's told the museums how it defeats their purpose, they've just been slow to discontinue it or the much scarier option: it's actually working for their visitors somehow. If this show keeps running, it asks a much larger question- do educators really want to be "giving people what they want?"

nicholas chiarella said...

Hi, thanks for this post! It's really interesting to consider the dramatization of a historical figure as a way to interest people in science, although it sounds like this particular case had little to do with the history of science and more to do with a clown show imitating a science show imitating a clown show. Yikes!

Anyway, Galileo distributed his ideas in a way that seems very directed to popularizing them--writing out his thought as a dialogue between multiple characters. It was as if his method for getting people to understand him wasn't dancing around their heads or handing down the authoritative results, but simply talking "to" them...

I wonder, too, if Paul is slyly hinting at Galileo's method of science presented in these writings: the thought experiment. Now I'm daydreaming of a mini-theater, in which performers or visitors play out the several roles of relevant portions of Galileo's dialogues. If the museum wants a participatory experiment, there are certainly some sections that audience members could be guided to reenact--even if more playfully than in the modern, somber scientific seriousness this museum is likely attempting to overcome, if over-zealously... but now I'm brainstorming instead of commenting! The general point is that the museum ought to consider the sources of their material a little more deeply and playfully, rather than attempt to engage visitors with a light prodding of textbook science lifted from elementary education. Galileo is brilliant and entertaining on his own, so why not convey him to visitors in his own words?

Will someone please dramatize historic figures of science so I can go watch and play with them? Or is anyone doing anything like this already?

Martha said...

I think this is an intresting thread. I understand all of the points about dumbing down the content and an important conversation to have. However, I want to throw in another point.

Often times as the education department, we are asked to provide 'family' programming for an evening event that is targeted at adults. With the time limitations, lack of extra staff, etc.. often times we don't have many other options other than to 'plug and play' a student program that isn't really necessarily a good fit for the audience attending.

The details of the event this program was viewed (in the evening, with mostly adults, leads me to assume it wasn't just a normal day to day program) I think this just brings up another issue of interdepartment event planning and programming, something I often struggle with.

I'm not sure that I necessarily have answer to this, but i think that sometimes non-programming departments lack af ull understanding of the time it takes to create audience appropriate programming.

Corey Timpson said...

Hi Nina. I was at the same demo and actually walked out before it was finished. An 8 year old's birthday party is bang on. When compared to the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-in Museum Theatre piece ... actually, you can't compare them. Museum Demos and Theatre can be so much more than what we saw last Friday and it all starts with knowing your audience and addressing them with respect for their needs and expectations.

Anonymous said...

how many adults were there with kids? usually adults at science museums already have a genuine interest in science if they choose to go alone.

i think it shows laziness for them not to design something at the least in between too childish and too adult. but i do think the article was a little contradictory. shouldn't museums be fun to inspire learning and leave a lasting impression.

Andy said...


thanks for posting this experience. We circulated it to our explainers and show developers and it triggered a really valuable discussion about performance and audiences that we might otherwise not have had. There were different opinions, but everyone is thinking hard about what they do!

(Centre for Life, UK)

David Karger said...

I wonder if the problem may be with the instincts and skills of those presenting (and managing) the demos. Communication is one talent; thinking scientifically is a different talent. They aren't opposed, but talents are rare, and finding someone with both is going to be extra hard. So, if you're going to hire someone at a science museum, which of these two talents is essential? Sadly, I'd have to say communication. A scientific thinker who won't talk to anyone isn't much use at a museum!

If your science museum is filled with people who are good communicators but don't have science instincts, you'll get an outcome like you described, conveying the presenter's sense that science is too hard and needs to be made palatable.

Steve Anderson said...

I'm struck by your introductory comment that the actor was "by many measures the best in the business."

Clearly, that's not true.

I've worked in science theatre. Entertainment can be an invaluable tool, especially for kids, in getting them excited, making them look forward to coming to the museum and eager to come back, and leaving them with the sense that learning can be fun and exciting.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that a science theatre show should be more entertaining than educational. There's only so much you can teach kids in 20 minutes... but if you can get them excited about science, maybe they'll be more receptive and learn more during the hours and hours they spend in science class over the subsequent days and weeks.

Good living history can do the same, especially if it builds a connection between past and present and lets people feel personally connected and involved with history.

Heck, Jon Stewart does the same thing for politics.

In this particular case, though, it sounds like the show wasn't just "more" entertaining than scientific, but educational at the *expense* of science.

Empty calories aren't any better for the mind than they are for the body. Candy may get kids hyper, but it doesn't get them excited--and it's certainly not a satisfying meal for an audience of adults.

Anonymous said...

From Rebecca Smith, DMNS:

These issues of education vs. fun and of audience focus for programs are constant, ongoing challenges for all of us in this field. We do the best job at balancing these when we receive feedback, evaluations, and input about our programs and then use the feedback to tailor the content as well as the use of our programs for different audiences. To that end, we intend to take the information that we have learned from this blog into account along with all of the ongoing audience feedback we receive about the Galileo program as we plan for its future content and use.
I do want to note that for many of our visitors, kids and adults alike, it is a riveting show. As to the science content, though of course many people think that the objects will hit at the same time, the educational point is very clear… you think you know what will happen, but as a scientist Galileo wanted to test his hypothesis, he was going to do an experiment to see what was really going to happen. This show is one dynamic element within the rich environment of content and experiences we provide our diverse visitors in our Space Odyssey exhibit.
We are pleased to receive this feedback and do plan to consider how to apply it in ways that improve on the strengths of this show.
Rebecca Smith, Visitor Programs Manager, Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Anonymous said...

Remember being the class clown is sometimes about trying to fit in with the crowd - being unsure about what and who you are? Maybe this falls into that category? That making the connection with children to impart complex process is scary and difficult. Comedy sometimes is the filler of the nervous and unsure... Perhaps removing the difficulty from their thinking could release some creativity and new ways of doing it? I think just reviewing the activity would be a good idea as it sounds like it has been running for a long time.

Brian K. said...

At a Night Safari presentation at the Singapore Zoo a few years ago, the presenters were heckled by a staff member pretending to be crazy. I guess the point was to have him find a snake in the bleachers and ask "crazy" questions to advance the dialog. They made fun of him and told him to take his meds. It was really atrocious and offensive (and juvenile), not to mention years behind our modern scientific understanding of mental illness.

kva said...

Hey Nina - loving this discussion and think we need to have it. I think a core issue is how much value we should place on talking to kids in a way that's simple, makes them laugh, and draws them in (although, to your point, no visitor should EVER be used simply as a prop). I put a very high value on creating that entry point for kids. And, for what it's worth, I think many adults are at a level similar to their kids when it comes to understanding Galileo.

Shows like this are an entry point, nothing more. But they're an important entry point. Can they be done better than what we saw in Denver? Well, sure. But I have to say I'm a bit put off by the professional dismissiveness I'm detecting in this thread. And I'm hoping for a response from our friends in Denver about their direct experience in doing this demo for general family audiences. I think that perspective would be valuable.

Science Centres as a whole of course need to be nuanced and varied and not just for kids - and my own experience of Denver was that they accomplish this with experiences that are 'older' balanced against those that are 'younger'. To pick up on Paul Orselli's comment, one suggestion I would have for improving the demo would be to make experimentation, rather than a cartoon character representation of Galileo, more of a centre point, with suggestions from audience participants driving the narrative in less predictable ways. That'd be more like science, no?

Bart Grob said...

Hi Nina,
interesting discussion. I think it's all about expectations. I like science centers not because they give me more insight in how science works or bring me closer to were the action is. No I like them because they are a different branch on the tree of science education. If I want to have more of the mentioned insight or want to come closer to real scientist, a lecture or presentation is more appealing to me.
With that in mind expected to see a kids show. I enjoyed the show pretty much. From a professional point of view I was surprised by the sheer enthusiasm and fun kids will have when watching this performance. In my opinion European science centers can learn form these kind of enhanced exhibits.
Maybe this kind of theatre isn't for adults at all. Lucky enough there were the beautiful diorama's and the astonishing 2nd floor lobby with spectacular views to enjoy. With the kids running around in the experiences I had those all for myself...

Tikka said...

Great post and thread. I think you're also raising the larger question of museums as enter- or perhaps edutainment. The reality that we're competing for people's scarce leisure minutes pushes a lot of musems towards the circus! Add to that our reporting first and foremost on the number of people through the door. And children being key decision-makers in response to 'what are we going to do?' or ' I'm bored'. I hope that we'll mostly continue to resist the call to carnival that overpowers content, but I can imagine an audience-development strategy where pleasing the 4 year olds with a sugar rush is just fine.

Anonymous said...

If it gets people interested, I'm for it. Relax, my friend.

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for all the great comments. Martha, I particularly appreciate your noting that this show was not written for the audience of adults at a cocktail party and that there can be audience conflicts in these circumstances.

I don't doubt that this is a successful show for the museum's existing audiences. I think what puzzled and frustrated me was the sense that it would be very challenging to develop new adult audiences with this kind of programming. I believe strongly that science and science centers are for everyone, and I worry that these kinds of experiences close the door for some people.

It's also worth mentioning that one respondent on Twitter who saw the show noted that she left immediately, quite uncomfortable. She was Italian and felt embarrassed by the representation of Galileo.

I'm glad this is a field where we can talk openly and constructively about these kinds of issues.

Gill Hart said...

If I can shift the discussion away from science centres just for a moment - something that worries me about 'live interpretation' in a fine art museum context is that the spectacle put on in front of or beside the works on display can be a barrier to the experience of the work rather than a mediator/interpreter of it.
Whether the interpretation takes the form of storytelling or a theatrical event, focus upon the event as an end result in itself can be a potent trap. Pulling together some of the comments made by others on this thread, I think a combination of forces are at work here: non programming staff becoming involved in event organisation can lead to inappropriate programming but there's also the pressure of relevance in the contemporary world and a marketing attitude of 'what on earth has this fusty old collection of objects and paintings got to do with the 21st century?' These concerns coupled with the 11th hour demands from funders or regional agencies to spend certain amounts of money on very specific things can lead to badly thought through events that, if we're honest, can leave the museum staff cringing too! It feels like what is staring us in the face is being completely ignored: we don't necessarily need to use gimmicks or props to bring collections to life - I'm not saying we should blanket ban such things but that we should become better at recognising when something more lo-fi or straightword might be more appropriate.
Something else that has become prevalent in recent years is a preference for getting people in to do things rather than getting existing staff to lead events -Perhaps better communication between the museum staff who work with collections daily and have spent time researching their audiences and how people respond to collections and those who are commissioned/invited to 'perform' for audiences is what is required.

jlevinso said...

I just read this paper that won AAM's Brooking Paper on Creativity last year (2009) - sounds like a great way to engage adults in science.

Nina Simon said...

I've experienced pub science - it's extremely cool. One of the things that's interesting about it is how the science folks have to find a hospitable environment and then manage their engagement--not too pushy, not too wallflowerish. Good stuff - thanks for bringing it up.

gih said...

It's not just for wizard, he just got an ability to lie the eyes of his audiences.

Mayweather said...

No matter what is it! But I love science and inventions.

Anonymous said...

It is all a question of considering your target group and think of them as maybe uninformed but not stupid - same rules as a good journalist has to follow

kavosh said...

This too is a method. But not all science. And not for all ages.!

bruce honnigford said...

Product and entertainment marketing trends today rely heavily on selling to parents because they perceived as the most easily persuaded due to today's focus on smothering children by arranging every aspect of their lives. This fuels a demand for more children's entertainment. That seems to be where the money is in science media. Unfortunately, that leaves little for adults to consume. The little Einsteins of today will be hard pressed to succeed when they discover that their college courses are not taught by professional clowns and comedians.

arydant said...

Product and entertainment marketing trends today rely heavily on selling to parents because they perceived as the most easily persuaded due to today's focus on smothering children by arranging every aspect of their lives. This fuels a demand for more children's entertainment. That seems to be where the money is in science media. Unfortunately, that leaves little for adults to consume. The little Einsteins of today will be hard pressed to succeed when they discover that their college courses are not taught by professional clowns and comedians.

Anonymous said...

Product and entertainment marketing trends today rely heavily on selling to parents because they perceived as the most easily persuaded due to today's focus on smothering children by arranging every aspect of their lives. This fuels a demand for more children's entertainment. That seems to be where the money is in science media. Unfortunately, that leaves little for adults to consume. The little Einsteins of today will be hard pressed to succeed when they discover that their college courses are not taught by professional clowns and comedians.