Kitchen Cultures: cultivating cross-cultural conversations towards inclusive climate futures

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Introduction

These are some of the questions that have emerged through Kitchen Cultures, a project that has been developed with the Eden Project’s Invisible World exhibition during lockdown as part of a remote residency. In collaboration with six migrant women+ of colour (all from formerly European-colonised nations) and no-waste chef Fatima Tarkleman (herself a first generation migrant of mixed Nigerian-Ugandan-Pakistani heritage), we created a process to gather existing recipes that referenced the diverse cultures, knowledge and experiences of our participants, and to develop new recipes that that could be used to reduce food waste in the home.

By creating new collaborative recipes that utilised preservation techniques to keep or extend the life of locally grown/available ingredients, this project seeks to:

  • Discover existing and create new recipes to address food waste;
  • Create cultural encounters that tell us something about food, migration and colonialism;
  • Include women who are often excluded from the conversations about sustainability;
  • Learn about different ways of thinking about sustainability from different cultures;
  • Create a relationship with the land in which we live now in order to take responsibility for its future.

Food waste in the UK

In the UK we waste over 70% of food waste post-farm gate in the home (6.6mT annually), although many households have adopted behaviours that reduced this during the pandemic. At the same time, COVID-19 has exposed major inequalities in the UK food system, and left millions living in food insecurity. However, it is important to note that the vast majority of food waste happens at the industrial scale due to exploitative and extractive agricultural systems.

As such this project does not intend to use these issues in order to justify the sticking plaster of reducing food waste in the home as an answer to systemic food inequality. It is possible to cheaply preserve foods at home if you have time, money, resources and knowledge to do so, and some of the outcomes from the project will enable you to do so more effectively. However, in order to properly address food poverty, we need agricultural and hospitality policy that supports a resilient food system, and the political will to create a more just and equitable society.

As a collective, what we feel is important is to think about ourselves and our food systems as implicated within an ecological system that is currently facing a major crisis. The primary aim of this project is to pluralise conversations about climate change and sustainability by drawing from the knowledge, experience and values of diverse cultural imaginaries. The practice developed thus sought to acknowledge and honour the ways in which ecological knowledge is held and communicated in families and communities through our food traditions, and to learn from them in order that we may find new ways to live ethically in a world that we share with multiple species.

Sustainability and colonialism

Industrial agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, contributing to emissions, fossil fuel extraction and deforestation. Global agricultural systems destroy biodiversity and create dependencies on industries such as GMO seeds and livestock, fertiliser and machinery which has created billions in farming debt. In the exchange value system, where fossil fuels were conceived as a direct replacement for slave labour on the plantation and in the factory, the bodies of black and brown people and land continue to be seen as cheap resources to be extracted for profit. Climate change as we currently understand it is implicitly constructed through the logics of colonialism, and explicitly maintained through the infrastructures of racial capitalism.

People in the global south are more likely to be living the direct effects of climate change (flooding, drought, biodiversity loss, crop failure), despite contributing the least emissions. One of the primary threats to human life due to climate change is food insecurity, yet the 10 most food-insecure countries in the world generate just 0.08% of total global CO2. The 50 least developed nations of the world have contributed only 1% of global greenhouse emissions in total. The Global North is responsible for 92% of carbon emissions, yet instead of addressing this debt, climate change campaigners Europe and the US often frame the responsibility for the ecological as shared by all humans equally, and advocate for deeply racist ideas such as population and immigration control.

All of us involved in Kitchen Cultures are from countries that are living the legacy of colonisation in terms of the resources, people and land that have been extracted, and which formed the basis of the wealth that in the UK. Colonisation was an ideological project that reshaped the bodies, minds and lands of colonised people, and its legacy of globalised capital and cheap industrial labour is one of the main drivers of climate change today. The legacy of colonisation on the wealth, land and other resources in our countries of origin meant many migrant families moved to the UK to provide better opportunities for their children; we come from cultures that think intergenerationally, and as a result we tend to waste as little as possible (food or otherwise). 

We know that there’s knowledge in diaspora communities that isn’t always visible to outsiders; our recipes tell the stories of who we are, of where we are from, where we have been, and where we live now; and the climates, resources and species we’ve encountered along the way. We wanted to create a space in which our participants could tell their stories, in their own words, or through their own practice(s) in a space in which they are the experts, their kitchens.

Over six weeks we worked remotely with our collaborators to develop recipes, and to tell stories, through poetry and through food. By working with diverse food preservation knowledge in partnership with holders of that knowledge from diaspora communities in the UK to develop recipes and processes, we wanted to invite ways of thinking sustainability and ecology from the perspective of different cultures (human, ecological, microbial). Starting as a simple recipe development exercise, it evolved into a community storytelling and recipe sharing project that, as a result of COVID-19, has predominantly run remotely on Zoom, Whatsapp, Instagram, and via discussions over the phone.

We were extremely lucky in this unprecedented time to get some funding from Eden Project to do this work, so we were able to facilitate access to the project through bursaries, and to cover all associated costs, including for home filming equipment. The recipes and stories that are the outcome from this stage will become a series of documents and workshops which will then be shared with communities around the UK via the Eden Project’s community outreach program. As they are shared, we expect that these recipes will evolve/adapt/respond to their context, and participant stories and recipes will be enriched through this network of cross-cultural sharing across the UK. 

COVID-19 and connecting to others

We are living through extraordinary times; however, this moment offered us an opportunity: to address social isolation in marginalised communities; to think about and act differently towards nature; to learn from and value different ways of knowing the world; and to do all of this in solidarity with each other. By engaging communities (human and other) traditionally left out of debates about the future of science, technology and ecology, we might begin to address some of the systemic (racial, gendered, economic) inequalities in our society that have been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through our experience of the collective grief, confusion and trauma, we felt that it was important to create connections between communities and people who might be experiencing isolation and disconnection. After the murder of George Floyd by police in the US, and the resulting wave of protests, there was also an increased awareness about the ongoing legacy of colonialism in the form of systemic and structural racism experienced by migrants daily. It was in this moment that it felt more important than ever to create a space in which PoC/BAME/global majority women+ could talk about their experiences of migration, colonialism and race in a way that was generative, healing and respectful.

Food is one of the ways in which we care for each other in our communities, and many of us come from cultural and cosmological traditions that consider nature (land, animals, rivers, trees) as part of these communities. By working collaboratively with each other, and by drawing attention to the organisms (bacteria, yeasts) in our environment and in/on our bodies who we also collaborate with through food preservation, I wanted to create conversations about what it means to care for each other when resources and opportunities globally are scarce for all species.

We’ve just completed the first stage of research with our participants, but the work is currently still in progress. We will be running the second stage of workshops with the Eden Project later in the year, with a view to developing a recipe kit that they can share as part of the Big Lunch next year. This is the first blog post introducing the project; in the future I hope to share some recipes and poetry that we are collecting from our participants, and to talk a bit more about the process we developed to conduct the research. We are also producing a short film, which will be available to watch on the Eden Project Invisible Worlds’ site as of December.

About

Kaajal Modi is an artist/designer and practice-based PhD Candidate at UWE Bristol, supervised by Teresa Dillon from the Digital Cultures Research Centre, and Emma Weitkamp from the Science Communication Unit. She is interested in fermentation as a metaphoric and material practice to create cross-cultural conversations about climate, migration and justice. Kitchen Cultures is a project developed in collaboration with the Eden Project and no-waste chef Fatima Tarkleman.

You can follow the outcomes on our Instagram: www.instagram.com/our_kitchen_cultures

The state of science communication as a field of research – a discussion

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The Science Communication Unit’s Dr Emma Weitkamp recently participated in an online discussion about the state of science communication as a field of research.

Emma represented the open access science communication journal, Journal of Science Communication (JCOM), alongside the editors of Public Understanding of Science (Dr Hans Peter Peters) and Science Communication (Susanna Priest).

The interview was conducted by Gustav Bohlin, Public Science V-A.

The discussion was organised by Linköping University, Public Science V-A and the Swedish Research Council . An excerpt of this interview was also presented at a webinar held in Norrköping by Linköping University on the 28 September 2020.

Science communication is still more dissemination than dialogue

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Photo credit: Pxhere.com

Words: Andy Ridgway

It’s a central theme to any science communication training – to communicate science effectively you need to know who it is that you’re communicating with. Call them what you will – audience, publics, participants – getting to know those who read, watch or listen to what you create and adapting what you are creating accordingly is of vital importance. Getting to know your audience often involves a two-way exchange – allowing your readers, viewers and listeners to comment on and contribute to what you’ve created in some way.  

On the face of it, digital forms of communication such as social media make starting conversations with audiences much easier than ‘traditional’ formats such as newspapers and magazines. After all, these digital platforms allow anyone to like, share and, most importantly, comment on what you write. But as a report on the latest research published as part of the RETHINK science communication research project shows, in practice these conversations between science communicators such as journalists and scientists and their audiences, often don’t happen. In other words, in spite of the mechanisms for conversations that digital media allow, in reality they act as a one-way broadcast media – the audience is very much an audience; playing a passive role in the process.  

Insights like this into the connections science communicators have with their audiences came from a series of ‘Rethinkerspace’ meetings that took place across Europe as part of the RETHINK project. These Rethinkerspaces are communities of practice made up of the likes of journalists, bloggers, scientists involved in sci com, academics and university press officers. Typical of the comments in the Rethinkerspace meetings, a member of the UK Rethinkerspace related how they found it difficult to create a conversation with audiences on digital platforms – in turn making it hard know what the audience wants. Similarly a member of the Swedish Rethinkerspace who runs a podcast stated that they face a “lack of time to engage with listeners.” UWE Bristol’s Rethinkerspace was led by Andy Ridgway.

RETHINK, a European Commission-funded research project that involves partners across Europe including VU Amsterdam and Ecsite, is focused on the opportunities and challenges presented by digitization and how to create a closer integration of science with society. So the connections between communicators and their audiences are important.

The same RETHINK report that describes the nature of the connections science communicators have with their audiences also describes who these audiences are. Here the insights came from a questionnaire developed by Elena Milani, Emma Weitkamp and Clare Wilkinson, who all work within UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit. What is notable is out of 460 communicators who completed the questionnaire, only seven said their target audiences do not already have an interest in science, technology or health. The majority of respondents (74%) indicated that their audiences are mixed in terms of their level of interested in science – with some interested and others not.

Many of the questionnaire respondents were press officers and communications officers but there were also journalists, researchers and university lecturers and professors, among others. The participants were from the UK, The Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal, Italy, Poland and Serbia. Most of these communicators, 94%, indicated that they aim to reach a ‘non-specialist audience’, indicating that for many, their conception of their audience is quite generalised.

The results of this study prompt some important questions. Not least of which is how meaningful conversations between communicators and audiences can be encouraged on digital platforms such as social media. In part, the answer to this question will depend on where the underlying problem lies. Is it down to a lack of time among those communicating science to engage in discussions? Or is it that many science communicators and institutions communicating science just don’t want a conversation – they still see their role as reporters of new research? Or is it something else entirely?

What do you think? Tweet us at @SciCommsUWE and let’s start a conversation.    

Mutual Shaping in Swarm Robotics: User Studies in Fire and Rescue, Storage Organization, and Bridge Inspection

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Fire engine at the Bristol Robotics Lab after a focus group session with local firefighters

I remember this story as if it was yesterday. It was the summer of 2013. I was laying on my bed, listening to music. All of the sudden, I heard someone screaming louder than my music, and banging on the door of my flat. I quickly took off my headphones, dashed to the door, opened it, and found my neighbour shaking, with her face as pale as chalk. Without any word, she grabbed my arm and pulled me towards her flat. Then, I went into panic. Smoke was coming out of the door! As we entered the flat running, my neighbour quickly managed to explain that the heater above the wooden bathroom door had caught fire while she was giving a bath to the old lady she was caring for. The old lady needed rescuing. Luckily, we both could take the old lady out of the bathroom before the fire developed more. A fire brigade came in a matter of minutes. The bathroom was destroyed, but no-one was injured.

After that experience, I knew I wanted to do something useful for firefighters because I had experienced how extremely dangerous it is for them to enter a building covered in smoke to put out a fire. Did I become a firefighter? Not quite. I decided to do a PhD in swarm robotics at the Bristol Robotics Lab to design useful technology for fire brigades. Swarm robotics is the study of hundreds and thousands of robots that collaborate with each other to solve tasks without any leader, just like swarms of ants, bees, fish or even cells in our bodies. Imagine if firefighters could release a swarm of robots at the entrance of a building on fire to create a map of the hazards, source of fire and casualties, so that firefighters don’t waste time searching (which is one of the most dangerous parts of their profession). Swarm robotics could also be applied in other settings. How about if warehouses had a swarm of robots automatically organising the stock so that employees only have to ask the swarm for the products they want? Or what if a swarm of robots could spread all over a bridge to monitor cracks? In my opinion, robot swarms are almost ready to leave the lab and enter the real world. We just need to know the type of robot swarms that potential users need. So, along with co-authors Emma Milner, Julian Hird, Georgios Tzoumas, Paul Vardanega, Mahesh Sooriyabandara, Manuel Giuliani, Alan Winfield and Sabine Hauert, we did three studies where we spoke with 37 professionals from fire brigades, storage organisation and bridge inspection. The results have recently been published in the open access journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI (you can read the paper here).





Mutual shaping: a bidirectional relationship between the users and the technology developer

For the three studies, we followed the framework of mutual shaping. The long-term aim is to create a bidirectional relationship between the users and the technology developers so that we can incorporate societal choices at all stages of the research and development process, as opposed to more traditional methods where users are asked what they care about once the technology has already been designed. In our studies, we first had a discussion with participants to find out about their job, their challenges and their needs, without any introduction to swarm robotics. After listening to their explanation of the art of their profession, we introduced them to swarm robotics, and gave them examples where robot swarms could be useful for them. Finally, we had another discussion around how useful those examples were for them, and challenged them to think about any other scenarios where robot swarms could assist them.

We found very helpful take-home messages. The first one was that participants were open to the idea of using robot swarms in their jobs. That was somewhat surprising, as we were expecting them to focus more on the downsides of the technology, given how robot swarms are frequently portrayed in science fiction. The second point had to do with the particular tasks that participants felt robot swarms could/couldn’t do. This was an extraordinary insight because we identified their priorities, hence the next steps to advance in the swarm robotics research. For example, firefighters said they would highly benefit from robot swarms that could gather information for them very quickly. On the contrary, they wouldn’t like robot swarms extinguishing fires because of the tremendous amount of variables involved in fire extinguishing. That’s exactly the art of their profession – they know how to extinguish fires. In the study with the sector of storage organisation, a participant from a charity shop said that they wouldn’t like robots valuing the items they receive, but robot swarms could be useful for organising the stock more efficiently. Bridge inspectors would rather assess whether there’s damage by themselves, given the information about the bridge that a robot swarm sends them. Finally, most participants brought up concerns to tackle if we want to successfully deploy swarms in the real world. These mainly had to do with transparency, accountability, safety, reliability and usability. Some of the challenges for swarm robotics that were collectively identified in the studies are the following:

  • How can we really understand what’s happening within a robot swarm?
  • How can we make safe robot swarms for users?
  • How can we manufacture robot swarms to be used out of the box without expert training or difficult maintenance?


Bar chart of answers to one of the questions asked to fire brigades

Personally, what struck me the most in my study was that almost three quarters of the participants from fire brigades expressed that they would like to be included in the research and development process from the very beginning. So, engaging with them through mutual shaping was a good choice because it opened up the relationship that they apparently want to have. And that’s really inspiring! I hope our research opens up exciting paths to explore in the future. Paths that will take swarm robotics a step closer to making robot swarms useful for society.

Daniel Carrillo-Zapata, PhD in swarm robotics and self-organisation, Bristol Robotics Laboratory

New insight into the motivations of today’s science communicators

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Words: Andy Ridgway

Why do those who blog, tweet, run events at festivals, give talks and engage in all the myriad of other forms of science communication do what they do? What do they aim to achieve when they communicate science?

While many of those who communicate science may well be too busy to ponder these questions day to day, they are important questions because, perhaps subconsciously for the most part, they influence the nature of the communication work they do. Not only that but when we look at these aims and motivations of science communicators at the macro scale, they provide an insight into their perceptions of the relationship between science and society. Are science and society connected and integrated, or somewhat disconnected?

It’s why questions about the motivations and aims of science communicators were an important part of the latest research organised by UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit as part of the European Commission-funded RETHINK project  which is exploring the nature of online science communication and how people make sense of science online.

A questionnaire, developed by Elena Milani, a Research Fellow within the Unit, and Unit co-directors Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp, was distributed to science communicators in the UK, The Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Portugal, Italy and Serbia and sought to find out more about why science communicators do what they do and how they do it.

Many of the 778 people who responded were press officers (just over 140), or described themselves as freelance communicators or writers (nearly 120). We also received responses from journalists and researchers, as well as those who described themselves as a blogger, YouTuber or social media influencer and a whole host of other science communicators.

What the questionnaire responses make clear is that for many of those who communicate science across Europe, it’s an enthusiasm for science that lies behind what they do. Many of those who communicate science said they do it because it’s part of their job. Others say their motivation, which might be very relevant at the moment, is to counter misinformation.

What was also noticeable was that nearly 300 of our respondents said their motivation was to ‘educate’ others about science. Perhaps not surprisingly then, when Europe’s science communicators were asked what they hoped to achieve when they communicate science, the most popular responses were ‘inform’ and ‘educate’.

This implies that in the minds of many who communicate science, the way we produce knowledge through science is distinct from knowledge use by society and how society might contribute to that knowledge. Knowledge is a one-way street that leads from scientists to the outside world.

That said, a fairly high proportion of European science communicators, 65%, said in the questionnaire that they are looking to create conversations between researchers and the public. This implies a more blurred line between science and society – a two-way street, with knowledge exchanged between scientists and the outside world.

This is interesting in its own right. But the nature of the science and society relationship has assumed greater significance and visibility since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s why there’s never been a more important time to think about this relationship, and maybe RETHINK some aspects of it.

In addition to asking science communicators about their motivations and aims, the questionnaire also sought to find out what they communicate, how they communicate science (whether they use social media or blogs for instance) and the barriers that stand in the way. The full report, including how this research links to science communication theory and previous research, is available here:

Thanks to researchers at Athena Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in The Netherlands, Copernicus Science Centre, Poland, Vetenskap & Allmanhet, Sweden, Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica António Xavier, Portugal, Sissa Medialab, Italy and the Center for the Promotion of Science in Serbia for their help in translating and distributing the questionnaire.

Science Chatters

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Walking around the Frenchay campus at UWE Bristol is an intriguing experience. Wander down one corridor and you find yourself in the Centre for Appearance Research, down another and you’ll find yourself flanked by science labs. Just what is that researcher doing, hunched over their experiment? What about the one peering at their computer screen? Step outside and, tucked away behind the student union, is the Bristol Robotics Lab. Just what is going on behind those doors?

The Science Chatters podcast is a collaboration between students and staff from the SCU and seeks to answer such questions.

For episode one of the Science Chatters podcast we chose the theme of The Arctic.  Emma Brisdion, a student on the MSc in Science Communication chatted with Dr. Stephanie Sargeant, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science about her recent research trip to the Arctic.

Priya Payment, studying on the Level 3 Wildlife Film and Media module, interviewed Annie Moir whose film, A Voice Above Nature, recently won a prestigious award at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Annie is a recent graduate from the MA in Wildlife Filmmaking.

From that sublime beginning, we had to turn to something more ridiculous and the second episode of Science Chatters is now live, with the enticing theme of Poo and Wee. Chloe Russell, studying the MSc in Science Communication speaks to Dr. Iwona Gadja about the Urine-tricity project, gaining electricity from urine.

The Urine-tricity project is one way in which researchers in the Bristol Robotics Lab are seeking to find ways to apply their knowledge of how to use “Pee Power” to provide electricity in areas including displacement and refugee camps. 

Fellow MSc student, Jessica Howard interviews Angeliki Savvantoglou about her PhD research into the bears of Greece…through the flies that interact with that thing that bears do in the woods.

Angeliki Savvantoglou examining bear scat.

There’s an argument that we should have called it Bears and Electricity but either way, you can listen here now.

Science Communication comes in many forms and Angeliki is an illustrator alongside her work on her PhD. If she is allowed to use the illustrations in her thesis, the reviewers will have a treat…as well as reading a lot of detail about poo.

Brown bear illustration by Angeliki Savvantoglou.

Jessica Howard, who interviewed Angeliki, is also an illustrator and designed the Science Chatters logo.

I’ve been something of a podcast fan for many years, both as a listener and as a creator. There’s something about the medium which lends itself to conversations which are filled with insight and honesty. In a world seemingly dominated by opinion and spin (to put it mildly), podcasts can provide a much needed escape. The relaxed format allows for conversations which are not afforded by other media and being able to hear directly to researchers involved in the science is really revealing.

UWE Bristol is a hotbed of research and Science Chatters allows listeners to listen in behind the scenes.

Andrew Glester, Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.

Building our understanding of diabetes with Minecraft (even if you don’t have the game!)

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The inside of the human body, and all its organs, cells and molecules can be tricky to visualise, and that makes it difficult to understand how conditions like diabetes work. We can use things like models to help us see all these different features, and work out how they link together to do different things.

But models can take up a lot of space, and most of us don’t have anatomically accurate physical representations of the internal workings of the human body conveniently accessible at home, or even in many schools. Diagrams are an alternative, but they’re generally not very interactive.

The virtual construction game Minecraft, on the other hand, is great for exploring scientific concepts because it has many features and processes that relate to the real world, and can be used to visualise things that we can’t usually see – such as cells in the human body. Children and young people are often familiar with the game as it’s hugely popular, and this can give them a sense of expertise and ownership. We know Minecraft can act as a hook for children to engage with science topics, and that by participating in our sessions they can increase their subject knowledge and understanding, making it an effective tool for both catching children’s interest, and supporting their learning.

So what if we could use Minecraft to view and explore a large model of a human body on a computer? We could even get right inside it to investigate the internal organs, cells and processes.

In our ‘Building our understanding of diabetes with Minecraft’ project, we did just that. We have a human body constructed in Minecraft, which users can move around inside. They can explore the organs, cells and molecules inside it, and visualise and learn about processes that occur when someone does, and does not, have diabetes.

During the 2019-2020 school year, we began using this specially constructed Minecraft human body to deliver sessions about diabetes in schools in England and Scotland. However, now we are unable to do that during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve created a slideshow to explain how diabetes works, using examples from the Minecraft build to illustrate components and concepts, and an accompanying video run through of the Minecraft human body. This way, more people can explore diabetes and the human body in Minecraft, even if we can’t visit them in schools or they don’t have Minecraft at home.

The slideshow and video can be used together, or the slideshow can be used as standalone resource. Each takes you on a virtual tour through the human body, exploring the relevant parts and processes involved in diabetes. They talk about what it’s like to have diabetes, and how it’s treated, and explore the pancreas, blood vessels, and cells and molecules to learn about their roles in diabetes. If you would like a creative challenge, the slideshow gives some ideas for activities, including building with Minecraft and Lego.  

The slideshow and video can be viewed below.

If you use the resources, we would really appreciate some feedback! There is a short online form here where you can report how children and young people found using them.

Project information

Exploring the molecular basis of diabetes with Minecraft is a Science Hunters project based at UWE Bristol, in collaboration with the University of Aberdeen, the University of Hull and Lancaster University and funded by a Royal Society of Chemistry Outreach Fund grant. The project was devised by Dr Laura Hobbs (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Dr John Barrow (Aberdeen) and Professor Mark Lorch (Hull), and developed and delivered by them along with Sophie Bentley (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Dr Jackie Hartley (Lancaster), Naziya Lokat (Lancaster), Jonathan Kim (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Rebecca Rose (Lancaster), Dr Carly Stevens (Lancaster) and Jordan Bibby (NHS Lanarkshire). Science Hunters projects takes a child-led, play-based approach to learning and engagement, and have an inclusive Widening Participation ethos.

Laura Hobbs and Sophie Bentley

Museums will open their doors again after the COVID-19 crisis – here’s why

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Adam Milner’s Late Night Space Force, 31 October 2019 – 26 Jan 2020, Everson Museum of Art.

This blog post was originally published in Spanish and Catalan, and we thank our former SCU colleague Dr Erik Stengler, for sharing the English version with us here.

Just a few hours ago, one of our authors (Erik Stengler) instructed his first class through an “alternate mode of delivery”, with students attending from their homes. He is one of so many who have always been reluctant towards online teaching. At least with synchronous delivery it wasn’t that hard after all – recording classes for asynchronous delivery would have been a much bigger challenge for him. This is actually surprising, because Erik is someone who feels quite at home in TV studios and even presented his own TV show for children. To understand this, it is important to realise that even though shooting a TV show and recording a class may look similar externally, they are conceptually very different. In a TV studio everything is geared towards creating an audiovisual product whereas recording a class entails translating a product from a completely different context into the audiovisual language. For a TV show, it is part and parcel of the format that the audience will enjoy the product sitting at home on their sofas in front of their TV sets completely removed in time and space from what is recorded. For a recorded class this separation is an extraneous element that will require that the translation somehow makes up for the absence of the human contact and social interaction that is inherent to education. No wonder that the best educational TV shows look nothing like a classroom delivery broadcast or recording on camera.

Museums, in the unusual and unexpected current circumstances of isolation and social distancing, are also choosing or rather being forced to come up with online and virtual modes for visitation. Many have been doing this for a long time, but having to close the doors has been the final spur for many to join in the exploration of this option. Some voices have already raised concerns about whether there will be such a leap in the quality of virtual visits or collections that in-person visits will be perceived as superfluous and ultimately visitor numbers will never recover after the COVID-19 crisis. If the future is digital, will museums ultimately be replaced by digital collections altogether?

As Nina Simon reflects, perhaps this deluge of online museum offerings is more the result of the need for a rapid response, to show that we are “doing something” than the outcome of a reflective process about what is happening and how museums should respond to the new challenges. This would not be a surprise, since a lack of strategic planning is a recurring issue in a sector that is often pushed to rush into executive action.

Here we wish to shed a ray of hope for museum professionals, pointing out that virtual museum visits will not replace in-person visits. The key lies in understanding that the museographic language is autonomous and independent of other communicative modes such as the audiovisual, and that it has its own assets and resources that other languages do not have. As explained in The Transformative Science Museum, these assets and resources include sharing a space with the exhibit and engaging in social interaction and conversations.

There is a generalized tendency to think that new technologies will replace existing ones, even though there are plenty of relevant examples to the contrary. In the 1960s, the popularization of photography led many to think that painting would soon disappear. In the 70s, the proliferation of TV sets was feared as the demise of radio. Powerful computers were seen in the 80s as a threat to games likes chess.

The Russian chess player Anatoli Kárpov is believed to have said that “Chess will not disappear with the advance of computers, just as athletics did not disappear with the introduction of cycling.”

Museums are singular spaces. Their mode of communication is based on their own language: the museographic language. This language is characterized by several endemic communicative resources, based on real and tangible objects and experiences. These are presented, rather than represented – which makes for an asset that is all the more relevant in the day and age of the virtual. As mentioned, this is complemented seamlessly by the social experience that is so inherent to a shared museum visit, with conversation as the main common thread, within the context of many other modes of interpersonal relationship that can even include physical contact. In all, only in a museum is it possible to live an intellectual experience that engages visitors in this particular way that cannot be replaced by other languages. Museums are a unique and therefore necessary mode of communication.

Audiovisual technology has not always been introduced in museums in a balanced way that is respectful of the singular nature of the museum experience. Even before the arrival of infographics, virtual reality and augmented reality experiences, this already happened with the introduction of audio guides. These devices require individual use, and while they can certainly have interesting uses in a museum, they can also remove all chances of interpersonal communication and conversations within a visiting group. It was posited at some point that audio guides could even substitute well prepared and enthusiastic museum educators. Needless to say, museums can and should adopt new technologies, but they need to keep in mind that museums already have their own technologies with potential to be developed without having to borrow from other languages, such as the audiovisual, unless it is done in a measured and well-thought-out manner, and always as an auxiliary and not a core resource.

Often museums contradict themselves in this regard. Many museums and exhibitions have fully embraced new Information and Communication Technologies, in a manner that shows little knowledge of the characteristic features of the museum experience, and reduce it to a very naïve caricature. Some exhibitions are very difficult to tell apart from a Samsung showroom. We will not discuss here the lack of social relevance of such expensive products – luckily their heyday is already in the past and they are gradually being superseded.

Aquariums[i], for example, would never even dream of replacing their successful tanks full of marine life by video recordings, no matter how technologically sophisticated these views could get to be. We are not denying that a virtual visit to a museum can complement a museum’s own communication mode, or bring it to new audiences, but it will never be able to replace it. Otherwise we would have to think that the wide availability of photographs and videos of all corners of the world over the Internet could replace travel. Rather, the opposite has happened, as they have sparked widespread interest in tourism.

Of course there is such a thing as a virtual museum. Just as there are virtual cuisine and virtual sex. As said, such approaches can complement a museum experience but, even though they are valuable in their own way, they cannot naively claim to be offering the same experience by replacing through new technologies precisely those aspects that these new technologies are unable to offer.

So, while we are confined, what are we doing to respond to the challenges that museums are going to face in the future? Why don’t we use this valuable time forced upon us by COVID-19 to pro-actively reflect, though telecommuting and videoconferencing, on how we will transform ourselves in order to become agents of transformation and the cultural leaders that contemporary museums are called to be in their communities? Or are we going to just respond reactively to whatever comes next?

Erik Stengler*, Guillermo Fernández*, Javier Hidalgo*, Marta Soler*, Pere Viladot* and Sarah Callan.

Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta

*Promoters of The Transformative Museum (www.thetransformativemuseum.org).


[i] Aquariums, together with zoos, were explicitly included in the definition of museum at ICOM’s 11th General Assembly held in Copenhagen in 1974. Therefore, and independently of one’s personal views about these organizations, it is accurate to fully consider aquariums and zoos part of the museum sector.


MSc Science Communication Part-Bursary Scheme – open for applications

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This year, the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol is able to offer a bursary which will part-fund a place on its renowned MSc Science Communication. The value of the bursary is £1500.

To apply for the bursary, you must have applied for the MSc Science Communication by Friday 5th June 2020 and be wishing to start the course in September 2020. Only those who have been or who are in the process of being offered a conditional or unconditional full time place will be considered eligible. The bursary may only be used on the Science Communication courses offered at UWE Bristol.

The MSc in Science Communication is taught at UWE Bristol’s Frenchay campus. If however restrictions due to coronavirus are in place during part of the programme, full teaching will be provided online so that your learning is not effected.

To apply for the bursary, please complete one of the following;

Write a short popular article that is no more than 300 words long on an area of science, health or the environment. The article should include a headline. Also provide brief details of the publication where the article would appear, outlining its audience, the types of article it publishes and why your article is a good fit with the publication – this should be no more than 200 words. The chosen publication should be a newspaper, magazine or website that covers science-related topics for non-experts.

OR

Write an outline for a science communication activity (maximum 500 words) on an area of science, health or the environment. The outline should describe the planned activity, give an indication of content and details of the target audience.

Your work should be emailed to Andy Ridgway (details below) to be received by 5pm on Monday 15th June 2020. You will be informed if you have been successful in your application for a bursary by Friday 3rd July 2020. The successful applicant should inform us if they are subsequently successful in receiving funding from a different source or sponsor i.e. employers, local schemes, so that the bursary may be allocated to a different student.

Further information on UWE Bristol fees, studentship and bursary advice is also available here:

Andy Ridgway, Programme Leader MSc Science Communication

Andy.Ridgway@uwe.ac.uk +44 (0)117 328 3332

If you are not interested in applying for a bursary, the deadline for applications to the programmes remains the 31st July 2020. Please note – we are currently receiving a high number of applications and would encourage you to apply as soon as your application is ready.