Relocating nanotechnologists: some challenges of displaying laboratory research in a museum

An interesting development is currently taking place in a number of European science museums: the move of university research laboratories into the space accessible to visitors. Seen as a means to promote the public understanding of research and to render research practice more accessible to visitors, such laboratories-in-the-museum have been set up in museums in the cities of Munich, Milan, Berlin, and Gothenburg. Putting research laboratories inside a museum and giving visitors the possibility to encounter research work raises a number of questions and challenges. How is a laboratory transformed during this process? How do researchers and visitors experience such laboratories? Does this move actually achieve its desired outcomes?

One such laboratory, the open research laboratory at the Deutsches Museum, carries out and shows “live” research in the field of nanotechnology. The aim of this laboratory is to display, explain, and discuss nanotechnology and, at the same time, to carry out research activities. At first sight, the open research laboratory at the Deutsches Museum looks like an ordinary laboratory. We see scientific equipment on benches, such as a scanning tunneling microscope; there are computers, researchers, chairs, and desks; experiments are being carried out.

Moving and transforming a laboratory

When deciding to set up the laboratory, in collaboration with the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, the researchers only moved instruments from the university that were deemed essential for running the laboratory. Yet, a number of things changed as the laboratory was relocated into the museum. To tackle the challenges around setting up a laboratory in a museum, the Deutsches Museum, based on its experience, recommends: that people should only work for a limited time in the laboratory (i.e. 3-6 months); that career young people (PhDs up to postdocs) should work in the laboratory; that it should be a small research lab (with 5-8 scientists); that it should have a private entrance and a “quiet room” to read and have meetings (Hix 2009). Also, monitors have been duplicated to enable visitors to see what the researchers see on their computer screens. Further elements that were added include: a glass wall to separate the laboratory and the visitor; large video screens, demonstration objects, information boards, posters, leaflets and flyers.

Clearly, the laboratory-in-the-museum has to deal with a new, “extended” object-world. Not only do there have to be objects that enable researchers to carry out research work, but there is also a need for objects that engage the visitor, that is, objects that catch the interest of visitors and encourage them to approach, discuss and debate with the researchers. In effect, this laboratory is populated by objects that perform work (like a microscope), objects that display and explain work (like models used for demonstrations), and objects that focus and frame attention on the performance and explanation of work (posters and information boards, signs). Of course, one object might play several of these roles at the same time, and on occasion, there might be a clash when the object-as-display is the object-as-instrument that is actually used. Visitors have sometimes to be reminded that the microscope they see is not a model, but a real one. Visitors might be surprised to see objects that are used to perform work in an institution that usually displays “dead” objects.

Researchers’ experiences 

The are several challenges for the researchers who work in the open research laboratory: they have to be “on display”; they have to cope with a certain level of noise; they have to work within museum opening hours; they are not working inside their university for a certain period. There are also challenges in terms of motivation, rewards and credits: it is not always easy to motivate and recruit people to work in the museum, partly because of existing reward systems and the issue of people (not) getting credits for communication activities at university level. Challenges also lie in communication between the researchers and the visitors. In a museum, researchers do not only interact with peers but with a diverse audience, which means that they have to explain their research to lay people and thus limit their use of scientific terms. What is more, they have to initiate discussions with visitors and encourage them to ask questions.

Researchers themselves might feel uneasy with the idea of having to be on display at all times. This is why the museum came up with the idea of a “quiet room”, a place where researchers can “retreat from the visitors” in a “more peaceful environment”, when, for instance, they are writing, doing literature research or having meetings (Hix 2009: 29). Hence, not everything that scientists do is to be visible and displayed to the visitors.

Displaying the laboratory and, at the same time, creating a space for discourse about science inside a museum certainly has a transformative potential. For researchers – and for the universities involved in these experiments – this move calls for new practices, new ways of communicating knowledge, new ways of reflecting about and assessing research work. For researchers, the laboratory-in-the-museum redraws the lines between essentially private and public space, between scientific research and science communication, and between experiment and experience.

Visitors’ experiences

Some preliminary information about the visitors’ experience shows that they already knew what a research laboratory looked liked but that they had imagined it differently: they expected more instruments, fewer computers, and a bigger and a more spectacular setting (Pfuhl and Lewalter 2008). All in all, the majority of the visitors reported to have liked the discussions they had very much and they commented positively on the comprehensiveness of the explanations given (Pfuhl and Lewalter 2008: 53). Yet, most visitors did not seem to have experienced their visit of the open research laboratory as a real “dialogue”. When being asked what their visit made them think of, 26 schoolchildren said they felt the discussion resembled a “situation at school”, 14 thought it looked like a “presentation/monologue”, and 6 referred to it as an “informative scientific event”. This clearly contrasts to only two persons describing it as a “situation of discussion after a lecture” and one other referring to it as a “round of research in-between friends”.

The Museum’s experience also shows that instilling a pro-active attitude in visitors and getting them to ask questions is anything but easy. Some visitors reportedly do not “dare to disturb” the researchers (Pfuhl and Lewalter 2008: 53). This resonates with the suggestion that the public “is not yet comfortable enough to explore new methods of science communication, […] i.e. to stroll, to ask questions to the presenters, to engage in communication, to question […] to look behind the scenes” (Yaneva et al. 2009: 86, see also Meyer 2010).

Final thoughts

The museum, as a public space able to bring research and the public together, is arguably a good place to open up the laboratory. In general, museums tend to be more open, accessible, and democratic than laboratories or universities. Museums also have a long tradition of credible public service; they are more welcoming than the elite university; they are physically accessible and have public-oriented facilities; and they can act as a mediator between publics and experts, and some have started to hold consensus conferences and inquiry-based learning activities (Einsiedel and Einsiedel 2004: 80-81). A new role for science museums lies therefore in facilitating public engagement with research. The role that the laboratory-in-the-museum can play to foster this is certainly an issue that needs further investigation.

However, it must be noted that although the open research laboratory at the Deutsches Museum enables interactions between researchers and the public that are visual and discursive, visitors are not allowed to enter the laboratory space, or to interact “hands-on” with objects. Hence, while putting a research laboratory behind a glass wall and into a museum certainly opens up research work to visitors, it does not eradicate the cognitive and physical distance that exists between researchers and the public – nor does it automatically turn visitors into researchers. The educational value of such settings thus needs to be further analysed and compared to similar settings in other museums.

Moving the laboratory into the museum is an interesting and potentially counter-intuitive move, since throughout the history of science most movements have been in the opposite direction (throughout which the laboratory was to be spatially and socially organised to turn it into a highly demarcated, protected, and confined space). Putting research and researchers on display inside a museum means rethinking and reorganising the laboratory’s material and social architecture. It entails setting up an experimental space for knowledge production, substituting opaque walls with transparent ones, extending the laboratory’s object-world to accommodate objects that perform, display, explain – and focus attention on – work, and, last but not least, creating and signposting a space to discuss and interact with visitors. Perhaps the crucial issue is to find the right balance between setting up a space that is not confined, that reduces the distances between experts and laypeople, that opens up private spaces to public view and public debates, and assuring that this setting caters for a legitimate and robust knowledge production.

References

Einsiedel, Albert, and Edna Einsiedel (2004) “Museums as Agora: Diversifying Approaches to Engaging Publics in Research”. In Creating Connections. Museums and the Public Understanding of Current Research, ed. David Chittenden, Graham Farmelo, and Bruce Lewenstein, 73-86. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press

Hix, Paul (2009) Professional Guidelines for establishing an Open Nano Lab / a Nano Researcher Live are. Handbook. Munich: Deutsches Museum

Meyer, Morgan (2010) “From ‘cold’ science to ‘hot’ research: the texture of controversy”. In Hot Topics, Public Culture, Museums, ed. Fiona Cameron and Lynda Kelly, 129-149. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Pfuhl, Nadja, and Doris Lewalter (2008) Abschlussbericht: Studie zum Ausstellungsbereich Gläsernes Forscherlabor. Munich: Technische Universität München

Yaneva, A., T.M. Rabesandratana, and B. Greiner (2009) “Staging scientific controversies: a gallery test on science museums’ interactivity”. Public Understanding of Science, vol. 18, no. 1: 79-90

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