It is easy to consider museums and science centres welcoming and inclusive places. When we enter a science centre gallery with all its hands-on exhibits featuring scientific principles just waiting to be discovered, it is tantalisingly easy to think that these spaces extend the same open invitation to everyone. However it is becoming more and more clear that museums and science centres do not afford discovery on the same terms to everyone. In fact, many members of the public are excluded from participating in museums and science centres before they even reach the entrance. How do you feel when you enter one of them? Do you feel welcomed? Do you feel it is not for you?
Many mechanisms can exclude people from visiting science centres and museums among them are distance of travel (for those living in rural areas), entrance fees (for low-income members of the public), or subject area (for those uninterested in science). But even more subtle exclusion mechanisms are also at stake. This is evident in the struggle to attract more girls to science.
Research shows that museums may be building gender exclusion mechanisms directly into the design of science exhibits and environments. One example is the exhibition style of some science centres that are more appealing to extrovert personalities who enjoy experimentation, competitions and risk-taking. In other words, these exhibition designs may imply a certain kind of visitor, and exclude others. And this is important, because even if the visitors who feel excluded manage to somehow overcome the difficulties they encounter, they may still walk away from their museum experience with a reinforced belief that museums are ‘not for them’ .
When our museums or science centre think about activities and exhibitions, they need to consider carefully who the implied visitor is and how to they can overcome these assumptions to attract and support a wider range of people.
Museums and science centres are, above all, for us all, irrespective of our age, gender, social background or ethnicity. For this reason, many of these institutions are in the process of renewing their perspective on what it means to be (gender)-inclusive. However, this task far from straightforward. It is not enough to simply remove barriers (perceived or otherwise) to visiting; being inclusive means examining closely the assumptions that are made about visitors, and moving away from any idealised profiles that may be implicit or explicit in these assumptions. Becoming a science education institution that is truly inclusive to the broad public is neither easy nor simple, but we want our science centres to achieve it!
(adapted from Inclusion: A new priority for museums and science centres, by Marianne Achiam & Henriette T. Holmegaard, Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen)