The Ecsite annual conference is the largest science communication conference in Europe. This year, in 2017, it brought together over 1,000 science engagement professionals from 52 countries.
By Alison Smith (right), Project Coordinator, Jurassica.
For the third time in its 28-year history, the conference was back in Portugal, in the beautiful city of Porto. The hosts for 2017 were the Natural History and Science Museum of the University of Porto and Ciência Viva, the Portuguese government’s National Agency for Scientific and Technological Culture.
The Rector of the University of Portugal, Sebastião Feyo de Azevedo, welcomed delegates to Porto – a “city of culture, of art, with a very human flavour”.
Pre-conference workshops on 13th-14th June were held in advance of the main conference on 15th-17th June.
The theme for the Ecsite annual conference 2017 was “Life Everywhere”; a celebration of the extraordinary diversity of life, and a call for the exploration of hot topics and pressing global challenges. The packed programme, with up to ten sessions taking place in parallel at any one time, was delivered by over 400 conveners and speakers, over five prestigious venues in the city. Session formats included informal drop-in spaces and sessions, hands-on activities, and in-depth workshops. The programme was themed around the challenges and opportunities that the sector addresses on a daily basis.
The Ecsite Business Bistro was the very relaxed social and commercial hub of the conference, combining trade show and coffee bar, with over 50 exhibitors.
Such an excellent programme of events presents a challenge to the participant. Deciding what to go to. Will it be the fast-paced session on the latest in spectacular touring exhibitions, or the one on the consequences of finding alien life? Going viral with guerrilla marketing, or giving natural history museums back to the grown-ups? Tinkering with circuits, or architecture and design as interpretation? With hands-on sessions, dinosaurs, robots, virtual reality simulators, and games – there’s no question the Ecsite annual conference is also a lot of fun.
Yet, one doesn’t have to look too hard for the big issues that are vexing the sector. The session on fantasy characters as science mediators ran alongside ‘Science engagement for social cohesion: integrating migrant communities’. This is serious stuff.
Fake news and bubbles
At a time when facts and rationality are being challenged by emotion, belief, and “alternative facts” – from anti-vaccination movements to climate change deniers – the truths that science centres and museums hold to be self-evident are under attack. But what should museums and science centres do about it? In his address at the opening ceremony, Portugal’s Minister of Science Technology and Higher Education, Manuel Heitor, who has a science PhD, said “we need science communication more than ever in these particular times”. Ecsite annual conference 2017 participants took these hard questions head-on in sessions entitled “Science engagement in the post-truth context” and “Fake and ‘Bubble’? A new era for social media”.
In her keynote, anthropologist, prolific author and broadcaster, Professor Alice Roberts, argued “we are talking to a self-selected audience all the time”; science communicators must break out of their bubbles and echo chambers in order to understand different perspectives and world-views.
Professor Alice Roberts is also Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, UK.
In a protest against President Trump’s executive order on immigration on 27th January 2017, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, rehung part of its permanent collection with works by artists from some of the majority-Muslim nations affected by the order. Alongside each work MoMA plainly stated that the installation affirmed, “the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States”.
Participants tackled the role of science centres and museums whose communities are being rocked. There was recognition for the courageous leadership from NOESIS – Thessaloniki Science Center and Technology Museum for its work welcoming children from the refugee camps of Thessaloniki and their families and offering them a scientific, educational, cultural and social programme.
Opting for silence is not neutral. Silence is political.
NOESIS Special Mention, Mariano Gago Ecsite Awards 2017. The awards encourage creative and impactful work within the informal science education sector.
How can science centres and museums stop talking to themselves and reach out to those in their communities who are underserved and apart? How can science communicators understand those other world views and perspectives?
Not for nothing was Nina Simon described as a ‘museum visionary‘ by Smithsonian Magazine. Her keynote speech on the final day of the conference was on the topic of her new book The Art of Relevance. In that one word – ‘relevance’ – Simon bought to bear a powerful perspective on these challenges faced by science centres and museums in the 21st century.
For a start, argues Simon, there’s no such thing as universal relevance: not climate change and not Beyoncé. Things that are important and things that are relevant aren’t the same thing. For Simon, ‘relevance’ is not the meaning itself – it’s what invites you to unlock the meaning. Simon makes the case for focusing on the ‘outsiders’ and working out how to give them the relevance keys to our museums and science centres.
“I’ve always been more interested in the outsiders, those who pass your door and don’t care that it’s open” Nina Simon
The concept of relevance defined by Simon, provides both a framework of understanding (the problem, the solutions, and the benefits) and an inspiring approach to effect change.
Get out there
The world is changing, and the challenges faced by science centres and museums are writ large in the conference programme. Science centres and museums have a job of work ahead, whether that’s striving to embed inclusivity and equality, training youngsters in 21st century skills, engaging people from all walks of life, taking up their positions of non-objectivity, providing platforms for public engagement in critical debates on science, or choosing to take a political stand. This requires science communicators to ‘get out there’ and to engage in the communities they serve and with those different world-views and perspectives. It requires them to know who their audiences could be, and to work out ways of giving them the relevance key.
The Ecsite annual conference, creative thinking & epiphanies
The Ecsite annual conference succeeds in creating extraordinary egalitarian spaces, fertile ground for creative thinking and epiphanies. Conference regulars greet each other like the old friends they have become, but this is far from cliquey. The welcome to newcomers is genuine, and opportunities to sit next to strangers are built into the programme.
One measure of success for any conference is the number of business cards that exchange hands. Cards changed hands at a furious rate; connections that become continuations of conversations, visits to each other’s institutions, academic collaborations or practice development – and hopefully real progress towards better science engagement and more relevant institutions for the 21st century.
The Museum of Natural History in Geneva, Switzerland will host the 2018 edition of the Ecsite annual conference (7th to 9th June).
Image credits to Flickr cc EcsiteExecutiveOffice