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Socially engaging conversations with museum audiences


What role can speculative design play in having crucial socially engaged conversations with your audience? How can you encourage critical thinking in young people through art and design? In this talk, Aisling Murray, Exhibitions Manager from Science Gallery Dublin will showcase the innovative ways they communicate with their target audience of 15-25 year olds and how to effectively use your medium to translate conversations into engaging experiences with your audience.


Aisling Murray
Exhibitions Manager
Science Gallery Dublin

This presentation was filmed at MuseumNext NYC in Autumn 2019.

Aisling Murray: Good afternoon. So I’m going to talk to you today about some of the ways that we translate big or difficult conversations into compelling visitor experiences. Science Gallery Dublin is a space that ignites curiosity where art and science collide.

So really exploring the intersection of these two disciplines, rather than the differences. Looking at the similarities of bringing together multidisciplinary people from different backgrounds to explore broad, socially engaged themes for young people. We do this through our core values of connect.

So how can we connect with an audience in a way that really resonates with them and participate? So how can we engage audiences in a different way of doing things, in a non-didactic way and surprise. So how can we potentially subverse or challenge people’s pre-conceived ideas of a topic that we’re looking to explore.

But more, I suppose, than art and science, we are also people and ideas. I mean, people early on self identify as being an artsy person or as being a sciencey person. And the truth is that they’re both about wonder and curiosity. So if you’re interested in the world, you’re interested in art and science.

And in the early days of Science Gallery, we were called nothing more than a glorified cafe, which was intended as an insult, but actually it was a huge compliment. Because we try and really foster a community of people to come and have ideas meet and really explore new ways of thinking, have a knowledge exchange.

So where are we coming from? Well, 2008, 11 years ago, Science Gallery is founded at Trinity college, Dublin pioneered by Trinity college, Dublin. And at that time, I suppose, STEM and STEAM wasn’t even a part of our vocabulary, not as much as it is now.

Obama had just been elected and was also the first president to use social media. The iPhone had launched the year before. The app store was just being launched in 2008. Spotify had only just launched in Stockholm. And I was in a drumming circle in a tight ice skirts in Galway, studying Philosophy. Lots has changed in the past 11 years.

One of those big changes has been that Science Gallery has gone global. So go bigger, go niche. Science Gallery is now in London, Rotterdam, Venice, Bengaluru Melbourne and Detroit. So in 2012 we received grants to open Science Gallery international with a task of opening ACE institutions worldwide by 2020.

And these are all the leading universities around the world. And we have some science gallery.detroit team here today as well. And we have a target audience of 15 to 25 year olds. The reason for that is it’s a community historically underserved by cultural institutions and where interest in STEM subjects falls off.

And it’s really where we felt we could have the biggest impact because they’re making big life decision. It’s a critical age for decision-making about what they might go on to do in the future. And we’re also thinking about the future. So how can we really engage that age group in a way that resonates with them around big socially engaged topics?

And that comes down to the visitor experience. So in our hierarchy, in our approach to exhibitions, it would always be visitor experience, number one. So how do we want the visitor to feel when they come into the space? Are we creating an environment for a 15 to 25 year old where they feel like it is for them, where they feel like there is something that is of interest that resonates with them?

How can we equip them with a toolkit to be able to engage in critical thinking around some of these subjects. And what does the environment evoke? So how can we even play into existing social exchanges, a social contract. Everything we do in life is a social contract. So how can we lean into some of those ways that people are familiar with engaging and use those in the medium of the gallery space?

One of the main ways that we do this is through our mediator programme. So rather than relying on signage and this space, which would be more didactic than what we’re trying to go for, we’re very conversational. And we have mediators that are on the floor to engage the public in conversation around each of their exhibits.

And I’m just going to show you a quick video from our mediator programme.

Speaker 1:

… understand. And it’s your job to open the doorway to allow people to interpret it in the way they wish.

Speaker 1:

Some mediators are students, others aren’t. Some have a background in Physics or Zoology, others in Journalism or Theatre. All share a passion for art and science and are comfortable speaking to visitors about it.

Speaker 1:

To have had this job immediately after college, I felt it was really beneficial because it gave me so much hope.

Speaker 1:

Everyone has a different view. Everyone sees the world in a different way. And for me to be able to see that and talk to them and learn about how they see things is just pure amazing.

Speaker 1:

Active listening is a key element of the mediator role. The aim is not to provide all of the answers, the best mediators, understand that their role is give and take, enticing visitors to engage and participate, experience and learn.

Speaker 1:

I’ve learned a lot more than what I’ve taught people. Everybody has these different ideas and you’re taking not just one person’s. Throughout a whole exhibit you’re taking hundreds of people’s ideas with you.

Speaker 1:

You can really see the positive effect on the necessity of the arts and for people’s lives.

Speaker 1:

It’s been an absolutely fantastic experience that I don’t think you would be able to get anywhere else.

Speaker 1:

Mediators create a welcoming and memorable encounter for every visitor, and are often applauded as the highlight of any science gallery experience. If you haven’t had a conversation with a mediator during your visit to Science Gallery, you probably haven’t had a Science Gallery experience.

Aisling Murray:

So all of these mediators are within our target age group and they’re paid roles. They’re not volunteers. And as you saw in the video, they’re all from a variety of different backgrounds to really bring that conversational approach around different subjects and topics to the floor. So what kind of themes are we looking at? Like I said, we take broad, socially engaged themes.

So rather than a show on sex and neuroscience and a show on intimacy at rather than show on Geosciences and epidemics, a show on in case of emergency. Rather than brain injury and neuroscience trauma, and rather than sustainability and climate change, looking at the topic of a plastic, something that everybody has an opinion on.

So really trying to find the funnel and low barrier access point of resonance with as many people as possible, and particularly with that young audience. What does it mean to them? Why is it important to them? Make it personal. And we do this through an open cold process. So we would say in Science Gallery, we’re not experts in anything, except creating a compelling visitor experience. We have Leonardo group of 40 experts in their fields, academics, researchers, journalists, cultural leaders.

And we bring them together four times a year with our young Leonardo’s as well, who are within our target age group. To explore what is of interest to you, what should we be talking about? What is cutting edge research in your area? And that’s how we end up tapping into [inaudible 00:07:14] geist of these are some of the things that we should really be talking about and looking at.

Then through our open call process, we would have an idea of different subjects that we want to [inaudible 00:07:22]. But one of the most amazing things is that every single time it throws up subjects that we might not have considered.

So for example, with intimacy, we thought that we knew all the topics that we wanted to cover. And then our 15 to 25 year olds came to us and said, well, you’ve nothing on pets. And we hadn’t even considered the importance of connection with pets for a younger audience. So really creating a flat hierarchy of participants where it’s not about one person, it’s not about the artwork. It’s not about the artist. It’s not about the curator.

It’s not about the researcher or the high profile academic. It’s about the conversation that each of these pieces is having within the context of the overall exhibition. And a really good exhibit, I suppose for me, is one of two things. It is either executed in a really future-facing or interesting, compelling way, surprising, unusual way. So this piece [inaudible 00:08:08] be another lab, which was a virtual reality piece, which had a camera on the front of the virtual reality headsets, and where it was heavily mediated.

So you’d be asked to raise your left hand. And when you would look at your hand, you’re actually seeing the hand of the other person. Looking at the subject of empathy and embodiment, and it was a really, really compelling visitor experience. And the other way, I suppose, is with maybe a more traditional format of artwork.

So this piece again, looking at empathy within our intimacy exhibition called hugs by Simon Manor. And I suppose upon first glance, it looks like a series of portraits of men hugging, but actually these images have been lifted from ISIS propaganda videos of the moment at which a suicide bomber says goodbye to his loved ones.

And I suppose this was a very controversial or provocative way to have that conversation around empathy and looking at othering. And does this change the context of what you thought you saw when you know the story behind this. And how’d you feel about that?

So again posing these big questions to our audience, in doing that we try to create an environment. So again coming back to experiences or spaces that our audience might be familiar with. One example is from Risk Lab and exhibition exploring the mathematics and psychology of taking risks, where we create an environment that had the visual language of a casino.

And so that was a very simple, maybe very literal example of the way that we would create an environment. Within our exhibition fake were explored everything from biomimicry to forgeries, and we created Faux foodmongers, which was a delicate test. And it was the first interaction when you came into the gallery space.

And within this you had alternatives, replicas, all different types of fakery that can exist. And it was a really simple mediated experience from the moment you came into the gallery. So not only did you realise it’s setting up the relationship for the rest of the exhibition journey, that you’re going to have different conversations with people.

And if you want to come back to this point and talk about it more, you can. But it’s also exploring the theme in a really basic way to equip our visitors with the tool case to then carry on through the rest of the exhibition and understand it stands potentially more of the complex ideas.

In intimacy we created an environment called the For Play Gallery. We are science and art colliding, but here we try to explore science and theatre, science and comedy, science and spoken words. And see how if you do workshop around clowning, how does that change the way you think about trust? If you do workshop and dance, how does that change the way you think about embodiment?

We created this space that was activated by the visitors because the exhibition was really about looking at connection between other people and how intimacy isn’t just something between two people. It’s amongst a community. So we created space in the gallery that allowed communities and people to meet and connect in real life.

And then taking that a step further, in case of emergency our exhibition about the end of the world. We created the Situation Room, which we developed with four research centres in Ireland around real potential global threats. So when visitors came into the gallery space, they were invited to become a participant of the citizens, catastrophe assembly, and where they could make decisions based the threats facing humanity

So there are four simple principles or categories that a lot of the works that we would look at fall into within science gallery. One would be engaging experiences. So rather than looking at a data visualisation of the future of bio-regional food systems, we worked with the centre for genomic astronomy to create this food truck or food car.

So again, using an interaction and a visual language that you’re familiar with, people know where to go to and you will be asked, what is important to you in terms of future food system? Is it that it’s vegan? Is it that it’s locally sourced? And based on that, an algorithm would generate a recipe and you’ll be given a taster of a sample recipe of what your future food system would taste like.

So again, a much more compelling, a much more memorable experience that makes it personal and really creates that memory. New tools, a really basic example of this could be new technologies, even photographies, virtual reality. But also new materials. Philip Ross developed this Mycotecture Brick Wall and in this exhibition field test, which explored the future of food and farming, we created a structure out of this material that was grown out of fungus and mushrooms.

Precautionary, and this one is one of my favourites. So these are the canaries in the coal mine. And especially for that 15 to 25 year old audience, this is where they really get to try on alternative futures … potential futures. And so this piece is by Austin Stewart, it’s Second Livestock.

And in the gallery, it presents as a real commercial product. So there’s a trailer playing so that you can buy it. And what it is is it’s a virtual reality headset for chickens. But, the thing is if we’re unwilling to do something about battery farming then is virtual reality headsets for chicken, the alternate reality that we want to look at.

So if we’re not going to deal with this one problem over here, then is this solution over here better? How can we create a situation for people to be able to engage with it, the big problems that are facing our society.

And co-creation, and I suppose this is co-creation of new knowledge between artists and scientists. So whether the relationship is mutually beneficial. And this was a piece by Orin Katz and Robert Foster, Stir Fly, The Nutrient Bug

And it was a bioreactor. So it creates in-vitro Meese and made from fruit fly cells. And I guess in being an art and science space, it’s always risky putting on real experiments. And we would often say in science gallery that our exhibitions aren’t finished products when they go out on the floor. They’re living things. And so they’re experimental and they move and they change, which is lucky because within the first week of this going on display, it exploded on our research coordinator.

So once the buyer hazard had been cleaned up, we had to change the way we were having the conversation. And that’s where really coming back to always being about the conversation the pieces are having with our young people becomes really important. Because that allows us to change us. So instead of being, is this the future of food, it’s well, is this really the future of food? Because this is what happened. And making those failures a part of the conversation.

So in approaching individual topics, we knew that for fake, that we want to look at de-extinction. So the long now foundation have a research group revive and restore, which we are looking into de-extinction of the passenger pigeon. And we knew that that was something that we wanted to cover because we were working with them on some of the research.

At the same time another museum was looking at the same thing and working with the research group. And I suppose this demonstrates the difference in style. So they put on display a taxidermy pigeon, which is interesting in its own rise. But we commissioned a piece Science Gallery. And we commissioned a speculative design piece from Tinaguriang called [inaudible 00:15:16] which asked the question of if we’re going to de-extinct animals, if we were to de-extinct them for the sake of luxury fashion wear, would that be acceptable?

Finding that question, maybe a 15 to 25 year old, isn’t interested in de-extinction, doesn’t understand the science behind it. And that’s fine, but they can resonate with a personal question about, do you think it will be okay, Marley? How would you feel about this, if animals were to be de-extinct just for the sake of luxury fashion items?

And the mediated experience. So coming back to our mediators again, I touched on this with Faux foodmongers that delicatessen piece, and where people come into the gallery and engage with ideas and leave it on the first floor that will equip them with a toolkit to travel through the rest of the exhibition.

In intimacy, we knew that we wanted to talk about consent, but we knew that it could be a potentially heavy or loaded conversation. And so we did for the first engagement was use this visual language of please do not touch, but instead have please to touch. And so when people came into the space, a mediator would ask them, would you like to be touched? And where would you like to be touched?

And so they would take the sticker and they would place this somewhere on the visitors body. And what that did was it opened up a really gentle conversation about consent in a very simple easy way as the first engagement. But it also set up the experience for the rest of the journey where they knew that they could engage with other people and touch them on the arm or on the shoulder, or that they would also be able to talk to different mediators through the space.

So to summarise, and I guess we look at creating environments that are fit for 15 to 25 roles that they feel are for them, that they are given space to reflect and think about ideas, think about big ideas, provocations in a way that resonates with them and mediation. So really facilitating the conversation with those young people in a way that is accessible. And something we’ve been talking a lot about in Science Gallery is with STEAM, that a for ass.

And if that may be doubles as activism, and cultural institutions are spaces for debates and they’re spaces where we can encourage young people to think safely about potential futures. I would ask you all to join the conversation and please come and talk to me afterwards. Thank you.


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