Denmark’s New Natural History Museum, a talk with Hanne Strager

 

I was curious to know more about Denmark’s New Natural History Museum, which is expected to be completed in 2017. I had written about this project in a former post but wanted to meet the people behind the project.

I contacted Hanne Strager, head of exhibitions and public outreach, who accepted to meet me and answer my questions.

I can tell that the ambition level for the future museum is high! The Museum Minds are working hard to create “something completely different from any other natural history museum”. The aim is to create a unique experience for the visitors, ”something exciting, beautiful, mysterious and whimsical” at the same time.

The interview was conducted in Danish, the following transcription is my own translation.

 

How did you happen to work with science communication?

Science communication has always been a part of Hanne Strager’s scientific career, ever since she was a biology student. It all started in Northern Norway with a project aiming at developing the region by combining whale research with tourism. Hanne got involved as a student and participated to the development of the project during 10 years. The project consisted in establishing an international whale research centre, an educational centre as well as tourist activities.

Since this project, Hanne Strager has never stopped working with science communication.  She joined Denmark’s Natural History Museum 10 years ago and has been involved in large projects such as the coming new aquarium (The Blue Planet), which is expected to be completed in 2013.

 

What are the projects or initiatives you are most proud of?

  • The whale research centre in Northern Norway

It was a fantastic experience to be involved in the creation of the whale research centre from the beginning and observe the tremendous change the city and the region went through with the development of tourism. Research combined with tourism activities contributed to establish a strong economy and to attract young people to the region again, hereby revitalizing the local community.

  • Natural History Museums are for adults as well!

Hanne is proud that she and her colleague from the Natural History Museum (NHM) have contributed to arise a debate at international level about NHMs ability to capture the adults’ interest.

In fact NHMs focus very often on creating appealing experiences for children. Hanne Strager and her colleagues want to break up with this tradition and aim at developing outreach initiatives which appeal to people in all ages.

“If the attention of children and young people is to be caught – and that remains one the most important goals of the new museum – then it’s essential to also catch the adults’ interest. We’re convinced that the best way to engender a lasting interest in natural sciences in children is through interested and involved adults. That’s the prerequisite for developing exhibitions and outreach initiatives which children and adults can enjoy together and which adults will willingly visit for their own satisfaction, not just for the children’s sake.”

Quote from: NHM’s website  

  • “Vin og Videnskab” (Wine and Science)

A new event concept was launched at the NHM three years ago: Vin og Videnskab (Wine and Science). Vin og Videnskab consists in scientific lectures where scientists from different disciplines are invited to give their vision of a given subject. These events turned out to be very popular from the beginning and attract a large audience.

  • Teaching at the NHM

Hanne is very proud that the NHM is the museum welcoming the largest amount of high school students in relation to high school teaching. The teaching activities at the NHM have been exploding the last years: 200 high school students attended classes at the NHM in 2008, when the amount is 10 000 today!

According to Hanne, the success of the teaching activities is due to the museum’s work to target the activities so that they appeal to teenager between 16 and 18. The teaching activities proposed at the museum are based on exploration, where students use the museum’s exhibits and equipments to find answers to scientific questions on their own. Students can for example use the exhibits of the museum’s exhibition on evolution to understand the origins of Darwin’s theory.

 

What are the initiatives in the field of science communication that inspire you?

  • John Brockman’s book “What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty”

John Brockman is the founder of the Edge Foundation and editor of the website www.edge.org. John Brockman is known for his concept of the “third culture”.

“The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

Quote from: www.edge.org

The Edge website is dedicated to discussions with scientists, intellectuals, artists and other thinkers on a great variety of topics.

John Brockman published “What we believe but cannot prove” in 2006. This book gathers discussions with about 100 scientists, whom John Brockman asked the same question:  ”What do you believe but cannot prove?”.

  • Wikipedia

Hanne considers Wikipedia as a fantastic achievement! Isn’t it amazing that people have created a worldwide lexicon, which is constantly renewed, developed and so democratic?  Think of the budget that would have been necessary to achieve such a project only 50 years ago?

  • Projects mixing art and science 

Hanne is generally interested by projects mixing art and science. She explains her own interest for science by a feeling of the beautiful: the fact that things (nature) are beautiful attracts one’s interest.

Humans’ will to explore the natural world can partly be explained by an aesthetic relation to it. Humans started exploring stars, stones, birds, etc because they first were attracted by their beauty or by some intriguing patterns.

Projects mixing art and science appeal to our sense of beauty and can trigger interest for scientific topics by other means than traditional exhibitions or lectures. That’s the reason why art is going to play a central role in the coming museum. Hanne hopes to be able to involve artists in the exhibition design process.

 

Can you tell about the Museum Minds team? How do your different backgrounds strengthen your innovation capacities?

The team working on the future museum is composed of 10 people with very different backgrounds: scientists, science communicators, artists and designers.

Hanne sees it as a strength! There are fantasists and realists. Some are good researchers, others have always funny perspectives on all topics. This creates a dynamic where the team is able to get a thorough understanding of all kind of scientific subjects and at the same time develop original outreach activities.

 

What will be the main difference between the current museum and the new?

Hanne’s answer comes quickly and clearly: there will not be any categories or boundaries between scientific disciplines in the new museum. The focus is on interdisciplinarity.

As mentioned above, art and artists will play a central role in the future exhibitions, but so will litterature, religion, politics and music too.

The principle for each exhibition will be that scientific issues are not only scientific. New knowledge and scientific findings interact with our values, our believes and can transform our society.

The permanent exhibitions on evolution, whales, the solar system and biodiversity will thus mix scientific considerations with other disciplines with the aim of exploring the topics from different angles.

Biodiversity for instance, will be presented through the challenges of resource management and poetry. The exhibition on the solar system will include prayer rituals and art installations, etc.

 

Have you thought of involving the visitors in the museum’s development?

Hanne laughed a little before she answered: “Yes, we have… in principle!”. The Museum Minds team wants to experiment with visitors’ participation, but has not done anything concrete yet. But they will certainly start a reflection on such processes at some point, and especially on the use of social media.

 

What are your personal success criteria for the future museum?

“It has to be completely different from any other Natural History Museum!”

Hanne wishes to create a unique experience for the visitors, “something exciting, beautiful, mysterious and whimsical” at the same time.

Hanne claims that a museum shouldn’t deal with the transmission of knowledge but rather with the creation of interest for knowledge. According to Hanne, exhibitions are not the most adapted platforms to disseminate knowledge. Museums are places people visit in their free time together with their friends or families, they usually only stay for a short time, and they cannot concentrate because of the noise and movements around them. That’s why Hanne is convinced that exhibitions should rather focus on triggering interest, enthusiasm and wonder.

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