By Marianne Achiam & Henriette T. Holmegaard, Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen 

In the past, it has been easy for us and many of our white, European, middle-class peers to consider museums and science centres as 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. But, as research shows, 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.

Among the many mechanisms that can exclude people from visiting science centres and museums 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 continued, widespread struggle to attract more girls to science – and also from a number of studies that have identified gender exclusion mechanisms at work in museums and science centres

Research shows that we may be building gender exclusion mechanisms directly into the design of our science exhibits and environments. One example is the discovery pedagogy of some science centres that may particularly appeal to extrovert personalities who enjoy experimentation, competitions and risk-taking. In other words, discovery pedagogy 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’.

In the project Hypatia, we work specifically on including a larger diversity of youth in science. One of the strategies we have developed to attract a wider range of girls and boys to science, is to consider carefully who the implied visitor is in our activities and environments, and how we can move beyond those implications to attract and support a wider range of science interests and aspirations. But of course, the rationale for examining and alleviating exclusion mechanisms in museums and science centres goes far beyond the project Hypatia.

Museums and science centres are, above all, for the public. 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 institutional assumptions that are made about visitors, and moving away from any idealised visitor 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 it is certainly worth striving for.

 

Further reading:

Achiam, M., & Sølberg, J. (2016). Practices of today and visions of tomorrow: New directions for science centres and museums. Spokes, 15, 1-8.

Dawson, E. (2014). “Not designed for us: How informal science learning environments socially exclude low-income, minority ethnic groups. Science Education.

Sandell, R. (1998). “Museums as agents of social inclusion“. Museum Management and Curatorship, 17(4), 401-418.