Friday, June 20, 2008

Reflections on the Science Center World Congress

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
These are some powerful and provocative goals. Many CEOs at the Congress seemed skeptical of whether science centers should even be engaged in "issues of science and society," let alone be a place for dialogue on these topics. The reality is that even for developed countries rich in science centers, the second and third declaration goals are highly debated and far from realized. Early in the document, the declaration proclaims, "[Science centers] are safe places for difficult conversations." I don't think that's yet true. It's part of the reason this blog exists; even in the richest countries we are not yet sufficiently courageous and skilled to offer visitors a place for difficult conversations about AIDS, global warming, local and global disparities between rich and poor, and all the inequities that tie science to society. I'm having discussions with people in the US about how we might do this every day, and those discussions are at the most preliminary level.

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.

4 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Nina -

Your post caused my own thoughts to coalesce around this congress. I agree with (almost) everything you said. And from my perspective as a leader (on good days) within a large and complex western science centre in Toronto, I shared your frustration around the too-often self-congratulatory 'show and tell' that marked the parallel sessions. As with any conference, the real stuff was happening in the hallway conversations where delegates could be more candid.

So, in that spirit of candour, do I think science centre's can become more than edutainment venues and become hubs for difficult conversations and action? I have no choice but to believe so - because I see no worthwile future for us in our current state. Will I work to make this happen? Yep, with every bit of experience, energy and skill I can bring. And I don't think I'm alone.

Cheryl said...


Thanks for your thoughtful post. I decided not to attend the Congress due to its cost, but also after receiving 2 bureaucratic replies to my inquiries about reduced fees for students/low-income people, and whether I could volunteer (answers: no, and local volunteers only). The key note speakers sounded inspiring and like they could easily have been featured at a grassroots event concerned with similar themes, like the World Social Forum. But my sense was that the 5SCWC would be a very different affair; not that it should become a WSF, but given its stated goals, it seems it could learn something from the culture and organizing of the WSFs. For example, the congress might include a day or specific sessions that are open to the broader range of actors already engaged with social and environmental justice issues, from climate change and AIDS to equitable access to scientific and technical education to address the serious problems faced by millions of people around the world, often beyond the purview of government and corporate priorities. This way of organizing the congress would also help lay the groundwork for more meaningful follow-up on its formal declarations.

In the spirit of John Dewey, such an approach to "informal science education" seems like it would be not only more democratic, but more scientific as well, allowing contributions (of questions, as well as data and theories) from a wider range of empirical contexts. As Dewey wrote in the 1930s, "Unless our schools take science in its relation to the understanding of those forces which are now shaping society and, still more, how the resources of the organized intelligence that is science might be used in organized social action, the outlook for democracy is insecure."


Anonymous said...


thank you for your post, and for your comment on the congress blog as well. We need more voices like yours to break the cycle of self-reference and "patting ourselves on the back" as you rightly say, of which conferences like the last world congress are full.

More than other conferences, the world congress definitely needs a radically new type of program, if it wants to remain a relevant event for the field. The congress must be a moment of critical reflection on what science centers represent in the world, not just an opportunity to showcase separate developments.

I would have much more preferred to read the "Toronto declaration" at the beginning of the congress, and use the following days to discuss with the colleagues at the congress and online how can we actually implement the goals that are stated in such a declaration. As it is now, I fear the risk that the declaration will remain a big "pat on the back" for all science centers. It is certainly full of good intentions and great goals. But does it help to really understand the potential and limitations of science centers? Does it really help to ignite the process of working together that you describe in your post?
For instance, how will be the achievements towards the declaration be assessed at the next congress?

My first reaction when I realized the direction that this congress was taking, which is summarized indeed by the final declaration, was an uncomfortable feeling that it was becoming an "institutionalized" event, feeding and justifying itself, not questioning for a single moment if this is the best, or the only way to proceed.

The science center field is a very small one. We can certainly be proud of the figures that are mentioned in the declaration, but we cannot hide the fact that science centers are still largely invisible to many parts of the population and to many policy makers. While the congress was certainly a great opportunity to convince ourselves that we're doing a good job, I didn't find the opportunities to critically question our paradigms.

Jon said...

About a year after you wrote the post, and as I see it it's more important than ever. The Toronto Declaration is a good initiative, but I'm unsure about what is being done on the subject. Is it working?

I wrote a blog post on the subject, from a Swedish perspective, where almost noone has talked about the Toronto Declaration until about now.

Hope you read it, and if you do, your input in the comments would be much appreciated: