Dr Evalyn Gates has a goal to “invite people into science”. As Executive Director and CEO of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History she is well placed to do just that. But what can one museum do to make science cool again?
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) was founded in 1920 and has a mission that emphasises scientific research, conservation and education. The CMNH is planning a major redevelopment programme and brought Dr Gates in in 2010 to lead the museum through the transformation.
Dr Gates (left) has had a distinguished career as a research scientist at the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. She has also held senior leadership roles at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics (KICP) and the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum and has a strong interest in broadening the appeal of science.
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Making Science Cool
So what attracted Dr Gates to the role at the CMNH? “It’s an opportunity to do something that I’m very passionate about which is to have a very significant impact on science education. My main goal is to invite people into science.”
Inspiring students to study science is a problem for the developed world. In the current recession, the need to have young people interested in science careers has never been more pressing to boost future economic growth. The ROSE study¹ (see right) points at a general trend that “the more developed the country is, the lower is the wish to become scientists.” This attitude is particularly true for girls and also extends to careers in technology.
Dr Gates believes that there is a general lack of awareness about what being a scientist means and what opportunities are open for people with a science background. “When I talk about this I say what can you do with a science career? Well you can be an author, an artist, a politician, run a country – Angela Merkel is a scientist. You can go into space, many of our astronauts have degrees in physics or engineering; you can run a business; be a lawyer or go into medicine.”
Also the media today portray tends to stereotype scientists as weird, geeky or even dangerous outsiders: “Too often our popular culture paints science as not fun and exciting and only for a few people that are not like me.”
Outside of her role at the CMNH, Dr Gates is active in trying to address the under-representation of women and minorities in the physical sciences. Dr Gates finds that many students she speaks to cite an inspiring teacher as their reason for studying science at a higher level. But for those without an inspirational teacher, museums like CMNH could be part of the solution to inspire everyone to engage with science, whether studying at a higher level or just to inform their view of the world.
But what can one museum do?
With such a huge problem in the perception of science amongst non-scientists what can one museum do?
Well, the CMNH is spearheading a programme which will see every second grade student in the local school system being invited to the museum. Museum education experts have worked with schools to develop a pre-visit package preparing students and teachers for a full day visit to the museum at which the focus will be on bringing science to life.
All 3,200 pupils who go through the programme will then receive a free pass to their families for a visit. It is hoped that these children, many of whom are from backgrounds where a museum visit is not part of the normal life, will begin to feel a sense of ownership of the museum.
Dr Gates says that the visit will be “a start to what we can do to have an immediate impact on these kids and give them a taste of real science. And I’d like to build on that.”
CMNH also have ambitions beyond their local area. With an award winning distance learning progamme, CMNH reaches out to classrooms in 26 states, even loaning artefacts to illustrate lessons.
The redevelopment project
Dr Gates has joined the CMNH at an exciting time in its 90 year history. The major renovation project underway will see a transformation in the way that the museum presents natural history.
The initial plan is ambitious, taking the visitor on a scientific journey from the Big Bang to the present day and from the home to the farthest reaches of the universe, with an overarching theme of sustainability.
Dr Gates came in at the planning phase of the CMNH project and found that the initial ideas were “absolutely fantastic but I did want to put some of my own spin on it. That includes taking what I think is the true view of natural history - to increase our understanding of and appreciation for the natural world which goes from what you find under a rock in your own backyard to the most distant galaxy - it really doesn’t stop at the edge of the planet.”
From looking out and up to down to earth
As a cosmologist, surely there must be a temptation for Dr Gates to focus on the exhibits that look up and out rather than back down to earth. Is it difficult to change perspective now that she is in charge of a natural history museum?
“No, as a scientist, and this is something that I think would be true for almost any of my colleagues, the one thing you do is that you continually love to learn and to dive into new topics.
"I probably spent about 80% of my life before the age of 10 up in a tree somewhere, so it’s not totally out of context. I also spend more time hiking through the mountains of Colorado with fellow physicists than most people would suspect. We actually tend to get out quite a bit!
“I certainly want to bring my own science to the museum. We’ve got a state of the art planetarium and we’ve been doing a little bit to make sure that were bringing the most exciting shows and science into the planetarium.
“But I really want people to get engaged with science wherever they happen to resonate: whether they’ve been to a planetarium show or holding a baby skunk in their hands or out in the field counting the plants of a certain species. It’s something different for everyone and that’s why I’m at a museum - this is the place where we really can get people excited.”
A whole body experience
All visitor attractions struggle with the problem of engaging an audience that’s used to high tech entertainment being easily available in the home. Whilst at the Adler, Dr Gates was part of the leadership team responsible for overseeing a $40 million renovation and expansion which included the creation of new exhibits and shows and also directing the development of three major galleries.
Dr Gates is keen to make sure that the revamped CMNH has “whole body experiences” that appeal to both children and the child within adults as well. Visitors will be encouraged to physically interact with the exhibits in innovative ways, for example by crawling through an underground discovery tunnel or discovering some buried fossils.
“I have fun doing things that a typical seven year old enjoys doing and I think I’m not alone in that. Things that you can crawl through or walk under – whole body experiences - give you a chance to remember things a little bit differently than when you just read it.”
When planning the new exhibits, the project team will also be looking for opportunities to set out the collections in unusual and thought provoking ways. Dr Gates gives an example of placing fossilized dinosaur eggs in an exhibition about the beginning of life, including an incubator hatching baby chicks. The juxtaposition of the fossilised eggs of extinct dinosaurs with the living eggs of birds, believed by scientists to be today’s dinosaurs, brings the collections to life for visitors.
The Smart Home
An example of a “whole body experience” museum exhibit with a sustainability theme was the Smart Home on show at the CMNH last year. The 2500 sq ft 3 bedroom family home was built on the lawn right outside the museum. The house, which uses 90% less energy than a conventionally built home, was sold and incredibly moved intact onto a plot in the city last October.
Valuable lessons have been learnt with regard to engaging the public with a museum exhibit about an issue. Dr Gates says that the Smart Home exhibit “succeeded beyond even our wildest dreams. To me that kind of inspiration, education and real object is a sort of trifecta for a museum project.”
Months later Dr Gates says that there has been an ongoing impact in the wider community. For instance the builders who worked on the house are now developing a line of buildings using sustainable technology and also acting as consultants on other building projects.
The exhibit drew people into the museum who were not regular visitors and who left being inspired to use some of the techniques. “It really was just about building smarter rather than anything totally unattainable. People went away thinking about what they might do in their own homes in a way that no traditional exhibit could have done.”
Research in a museum
During her seven years at the Adler, Dr Gates established one of the first astronomy and astrophysics research groups in a museum setting which served to help communicate the work of the scientists to the general public. The renovation project at CMNH will see glass partitions between the research scientists at work and the visitors, quite literally removing barriers and opening up the reality of science to the public.
Dr Gates believes that an active research function at a museum is “essential and the reason that I’m at an institution like this. The research adds a depth to everything that we do and the challenge is to find more and more ways to use this real science in our programmes and exhibits to break down the walls between scientists and the rest of the world.
It is also important that scientists who work at the museum have good communication skills: “When we’re looking at who to bring in in terms of research I’m looking for scientists who are top of their particular field but who are also multi-talented individuals with an interest, passion and talent for reaching out beyond the scientific community.”
Smartphones and apps
So are apps part of the CMNH project? CMNH have just prototyped a smartphone app, but Dr Gates is all too aware of the lure of new technologies for scientists and is keen to look at how people actually want to use museums and develop technological solutions accordingly. Dr Gates is not convinced that visitors will want to be swamped with information when they pause to look at an exhibit, or that it would enhance their visitor experience.
“There’s an urge as a scientist to always want to tell people more information…I think we need to be a little more creative. One of the things I’ve noticed when walking through our museum is that people really like to put themselves into place by taking photos. Maybe there’s an opportunity to choose a spot where people can take a photo of themselves, and then when it’s emailed to them we can tell them a little bit more about the object that being photographed next to.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about what the future is of museums of different kinds and I think there are two things that we need to keep in mind which will always be true. One is that you go to a museum to see a real thing. You can watch a video or read a book about a dinosaur but actually standing under the T Rex skeleton and looking up through the skull is really awe inspiring and that’s never going to change.
“The other thing that people come to museums for is a shared social experience. You come with your friends and family and you talk about things and point at things and the best exhibits get people engaged not just with the exhibit but with each other. So if we’re going to think about technology we need to think about how it enhances these two key points.”
Fundraising: “the urgency to do something about science education”
The redevelopment project was conceived before the recession took hold with a cost reported to be around $50 million, although Dr Gates is not ready to confirm the final figure at this early stage. Raising money at any time is a challenge but in today’s economic environment it is particularly difficult. Dr Gates, however, is convinced that CMNH can still present a compelling argument.
“I think there’s a really growing recognition of the urgency to do something about science education and to do it now. That’s why what we’re trying to do is so important. We’re not saying we want to raise money because we want to have a really cool museum or cool exhibit, we’re saying we’ve got the potential to do something here that’s really important for this region and I think to model something that could have an impact far beyond.”
Photo credit for all images: © Cleveland Museum of Natural History
¹ The ROSE (Relevance of science education) is a cooperative research project with wide international participation, addressing how young learners relate to science and technology. An overview and key findings was published in March 2010 by Svein Sjøberg and Camilla Schreiner of the University of Oslo.