Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Why Do We Interpret Art and Science So Differently?

A genius has just created a major body of work. Her work is monumental in her field, but her achievements are somewhat opaque to the general public.

Imagine seeing a museum exhibition related to this person's work. What will you experience?

The answer depends on what kind of museum you are visiting.

If we're talking about an an artist working in the context of an art museum, it's likely that the genius' work will be presented with minimal interpretation. Labels will reference the importance of her work in the context of the art world. The curator and any educators will work around and noticeably behind the artist herself.

If we're talking about a scientist in a science museum or science center, the presentation will be completely different. Museum exhibition designers will distill her achievements into stories, objects, and interactive components that are understandable to lay people at the middle school level. The genius might have a quote, photo, or object on display to give context to the story, but the majority of the content will be developed and produced by the museum, not the scientist.

Both of these approaches have plusses and minuses. Science museums get criticized for "dumbing down" big ideas for a general audience. Art museums struggle with seeming "pretentious" and narrow in their interpretation.

As someone who has worked in both science and art museums, I'm confused as to why there is such a gulf in our perspectives on how and why interpretation fits into the picture. Artists and scientists both work in specific contexts on big, complicated ideas. There are huge opportunities for science and art museums to cross-program with geniuses like Olafur Elliason, James Turrell, and many, many folks working across the art/science spectrum. While a few institutions have capitalized on the intersections between art and science (notably, the Exploratorium, Science Gallery, and the New York Hall of Science), most stay squarely in their own camps.

Why do we think science is impossible to communicate in its "pure" form but that art must be communicated in that way lest it be distorted? Why do we think scientific research is any more or less understandable to the general public than fine art? Considering the emphasis in schools on science and the evisceration of art programs, I wouldn't be surprised if science literacy is higher than art literacy in contemporary American society.

Both types of institutions would be well-served if we examined the expectations underlying our work and whether we are going overboard to disassociate ourselves from them.

In science centers, we try to combat the notion that science is complex work for a limited, rarified few. So we focus on the idea that "you can be a scientist" and that "science is fun." Do these democratizing messages prevent us from pursuing interesting ways to present the extraordinary genius of some scientists and the incredible complexity and repetition of scientific work?

In art museums, we try to combat the notion that art is something your child can do, and if you like it, it's art. So we focus on the idea that "artists are special" and that "art is complicated." Do these elitist messages prevent us from exploring useful ways to honor the creativity in everyone and the simple pleasures of aesthetics?

It's ironic that the stereotypes we're trying to run from lead us to each other.

Thank you to the ISEN listserv for helping spark this post, via the controversy over Richard Dawkins' denigrating remarks about informal science.
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