Science Communication, Museums and Teaching with Respect

In many ways, the museum environment is very similar to the science communication community online. In the hallway where my office is located, we also have the staff of the Children’s Museum, the Natural History and Science staff, School Programs and the rest of my department – Public Education. Off the top of my head, the knowledge base represented includes, but is not limited to:

Biology, Environmental studies, Civil war history/reenactment, Jewish history in the Civil War, Some sort of geology that is not invertebrate paleontology, theater, early childhood education, North American archaeology, biological anthropology, art history, fine arts, forensic anthropology, physics and people with no formal education but years of experience in museums/raising children. (In this list, I’m leaving out the history museum staff, not because they aren’t a group of fantastically educated and helpful people, but because I can’t shout at them down the hall.)

This variety of disciplines and knowledge has the obvious effect of making sure there is always someone who knows the answer to a question, or at least has the book on their desk that can point to an answer. This is useful, particularly in a field that has no standards or tests to teach to. It means that when a visitor asks me what people did with dead horses on riverboats (while I was teaching a program on horse evolution, no less), if I don’t know the answer I can call someone and ask. The diverse knowledge means that we can serve as a learning institution much more effectively than we could if we just had natural history people working in the natural history museum.

However, it also has a less-obvious and equally important effect.

It means that, in the course of my day, I am always explaining things to people who have absolutely no background in a subject, but whom I have deep respect for.

As I’ve touched on in earlier posts, it’s all too easy to assume that because you have knowledge in a subject that A) everyone else has that knowledge and/or B) that those without that knowledge are idiots. We as science communicators or museum educators or researchers start with the idea that not only does everyone know the basic ideas of our field, but that everyone should know the basic ideas of our field, no excuses.

This assumption is easy to run with. In an academic world you tend to be surrounded by people who know the things that you do. They may not have the same depth of knowledge, but they at least have the same foundation. They share the language and jargon of the field. This is what you want in a lab, but it definitely makes communicating across disciplines more difficult. Because each and every discipline has their own language, it can make people in other fields seem woefully out of touch with this super exciting and important knowledge(!!!) in your field.

In the museum we don’t have that shared background, which means that even if we are working on a program on the same topic, we come at it from all different directions. We’re all working on programs related to Pompeii at the moment, but with different subjects I’m working on a program on food culture in the ancient world, someone else is looking at volcanos in geology, someone else is writing about physical evidence of past life (I believe they’re comparing fossil casts to the ash body cavities), etc. We always share ideas about our programs, but in this particular case it has been interesting both observing and participating in the discussion. None of us actually have any background in this subject. I have a minor in classics and there’s one person who studied art history and looked at art in Pompeii, but that’s as close as it gets to any real knowledge base.  Instead, we’ve all been frantically researching, each in our own way, in order to bring ourselves up to speed.

Because we’re all approaching it from different topics. Trying to explain a pyroclastic flow to an art historian or food symbolism in the mosaics to a geologist is equally fraught. If, for instance, one of the geologists was explaining what happened when Vesuvius erupted to another geologist they would use a shorthand of shared volcano knowledge. If you’re explaining it to an art historian it’s not so easy. You have to actually stop and think “Okay, do they know how volcanoes are formed? Do they even know what a stratovolcano is? How do I explain that a pyroclastic flow is actually a gas and not lava?” It means you have to stop and carefully think through your information in order to make sure you’re correctly communicating a concept. Also, if you act condescending because they don’t know the information, they’re going to immediately call you on it and then tell you something you don’t know from their field that makes you look equally ignorant. You may have a different background, but both of your knowledge sets are worthy of respect.

This is a bit of a pain when you just really, really want to share some really cool and obscure fact of geology you just learned and are met with a completely blank look. However, it’s invaluable when you’re actually communicating to visitors and other non-museum people. You’ve already gone through the process of carefully pulling out the information you need to communicate without talking down to someone. Not only do you now have a better idea of what the visitor is going to want to know, but you will be unconsciously approaching them with the same respect with which you approached your colleague. That respect will show through to the non-specialist, even if you aren’t aware of it.

In science communication community there is a similar effect. We are all deeply knowledgeable individuals, and we are all deeply curious individuals. However, we can’t assume that everyone, in spite of their curiosity, will know the basic information upon which we are building. So we need to step back and take a minute to think about what other people know. We need to carefully compose our message so that not only are they getting the new and interesting information, but they also getting the foundation on which to place that information.

This, I believe, is the real strength of this community. The very act of dissecting our knowledge in order to share it with others both gives us a deeper understanding of our own field and strengthens our ability to communicate with everyone at whatever level we need to meet them.

This post was partially inspired by Ed Yong’s fantastic On jargon, and why it matters in science writing and partially by a long discussion with my coworkers about how we learn and teach information in areas that aren’t our specialty.

See also this excellent post on how scientists need to learn how to communicate to other scientists Dude, you are speaking Romulan.

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