The 30th ECSITE conference was held from 5th – 9th June, in Copenhagen, Denmark. During the conference, professionals from science centres across Europe explored the future of science communication. The theme of ECSITE 2019 was ‘Pushing the Boundaries’. Eli Kuslansky from Unified Field reports.
Two key themes for ECSITE 2019
In many ways, ECSITE 2019 was a tale of two conferences; science centres as they are; and what science centres can become. One central theme explored the current programmes and exhibits running at science centres and museums. These institutions are designed to inspire visitors and empower educators. Many also function as a bulwark against alternative facts and fake news to counter assaults on science.
The other underlying theme was strategic, aspirational, and visionary. It examined the advances that science centres have made in the last 10 years, and how they plan on pushing the boundaries over the next 50.
Attendees explored how to overcome institutionalized inertia and staff resistance. They also looked at ways to embrace new business and engagement models. In today’s changing world, science centres need to constantly negotiate and redefine science communication.
The first keynote on Friday morning was “Mathematics as Material Play” by Margaret Wertheim. Wertheim is an internationally acclaimed writer, artist, and curator. Her work focuses on relations between science and the wider cultural landscape.
Wertheim talked about using the handicraft of wool crocheting as a method of science communication. Her keynote examined how it can help people to appreciate the aesthetics and poetry of science and maths. This project has already created an extensive body of work of crocheted corals. These are used to teach hyperbolic geometry and the underlying principles of general relativity.
For hundreds of years, mathematicians believed that it was impossible to model hyperbolic structures materially. However, in1997, Dr Daina Taimina discovered that the traditional art of crochet is a perfect medium.
Wertheim based her work on Dr Taimina’s discovery. For the past 15 years, her project has exhibited crochet corals reefs in art museums and science centres. Workshops also take place, in hospitals, prisons, and other venues.
Pushing the envelope
ECSITE’s sessions were parsed into several tracks. These included collections, equity & inclusion, exhibit development and visitor services. There were also sessions on research, theory and evaluation, business and fundraising, science loves society, strategy and vision, and more. Furthermore, attendees could take part in workshops on maker’s spaces, mobile apps, and escape rooms.
Some sessions pushed the envelope. “Fifty years and counting: two seminal science centres look to the future” in the strategy and vision track was one such example. It was moderated by Rob Semper, Associate Executive Director of the Exploratorium. Firstly, Arne Schirrmacher, Heisenberg Fellow, Humboldt University Berlin, provided a historical tour of science centres leading up to 1969.
Then Christopher Flink, the new CEO of the Exploratorium, and Maurice Bitran, the CEO of Ontario Science Center in Toronto, Canada took to the stage. They presented about innovation, relentless prototyping, testing and developing novel learning experiences through applied research and development.
The two spoke about interactive learning by choice models at their attractions. They also discussed how this is going through a major change across the industry. Science centres are becoming more of a community catalyst than a destination. They can be seen to be a resource and knowledge node. One that fields experiences connected to real life and activities outside the science centre walls, and offers programs with social impact.
Lastly, Gillian Thomas, a consultant, and former President and CEO of the Phillip and Phylis Frost Museum of Science, Miami, wrapped up the session. She highlighted ways that other science centres could use the insights from the master plans in their own planning sessions.
One of the best sessions was Project Showcase. The premise was this: could an object describe your entire project? 15 presenters used an object to describe their project in 2 minutes. One standout was Marianna Obrist from the University of Sussex, Brighton, England. She used a rose to talk about the European Research Council initiatives on how to make technology more multisensory.
Frank Kupper, Assistant Professor Science Communication at the Athena Institute, Amsterdam, also took part. He used a glass paperweight with a natural form encased in. Through this, he spoke about how science freezes objects, and how to be open and reflective in shaping conversations about science.
Another highlight was from Andrew Whittington-Davis, Project and Communications Assistant, ECSITE. He used a paper cup with two holes in the lid for cross circulation. This represents the flow of cross curation and collaboration in design.
Networking and events at ECSITE 2019
The opening Gala Dinner was held at the Wallmans Circus Building with a variety of circus acts. Other events included a closing party at the Docken Club, as well as a concert by ECSITE’S very own jazz band.
The Saturday morning keynote for ECSITE 2019 was “The blob: a genius without a brain” by Audrey Dussutour. Dussutour works on animal cognition, neuroscience, animal behaviour, and computational biology at the Research Centre on Animal Cognition of Toulouse University, France. Her keynote was on slime moulds. Once you get past the gross factor, it is a fascinating topic. Dussutour showed experiments that proved that slime moulds have learned behaviours. They can also communicate with other slime moulds, even without a brain.
In one booth at the Business Bistro was Eliya. This small art studio in Jerusalem designs and builds musical sculptures that integrate water. Attendees made prints of icons of Eilya’s projects to display at the booth.
Two booths also hosted old fashioned video arcade games to attract people and demo products. Is this a coincidence, a trend, or a sign of the ‘slow food’ movement for technology? One organization with this type of booth was the Visualization Center C, a research and science centre in Norrköping, Sweden. Here they demonstrated their methods for visualizing large and complex data sets, using a video wall of six 8K monitors.
One of the most interesting ideas was from the European Research Council. It demonstrated a VR interactive experience where the guest is a tree, growing up from a seed to full grown. The experience gives haptic feedback, smells and effects. European Research Council is also looking for partners to bring this multisensory technology to market.
Firstly, the standouts in the touring exhibitions category were the Inca Gold exhibition by JVS Group and Special Effects, Steal the Scene by Universcience. Another highlight was The Power of Poison by the American Museum of Natural History.
EDG was showcasing over 27 exhibitions in the science and technology space at ECSITE 2019. These included the International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes and Beyond Rubik’s Cube. It also highlighted Digital Me, a collaboration with MadaTech, the Israel National Museum of Science, Technology, and Space. This exhibit lets visitors explore the modern digital world and its impact.
Next, Science North, in partnership with Ripley Entertainment, showed The Science of Guinness World Records. Here visitors can learn the science behind some of the most amazing feats. They also have the opportunity to attempt their own Guinness World Record too.
Holovis showcased the Space Center Academy and Mars Colony. This is the first-ever travelling exhibition with the extensive use of AR to engage guests. Imagine Exhibitions showed Map it! – a new exhibit at Scitech, Perth, Australia. Here, guests have to navigate using stars and sonar to navigate shipwrecks, pilot a simulated underwater vehicle or even escape a virtual building. Flying Fish also showed its portfolio of exhibitions. These featured Spiders: from Fear to Fascination and Towers of Tomorrow with Lego Bricks.
Creating science centres of the future
I also attended a Friday night dinner at Warpigs, hosted by Lath Carlson, the new director of the Museum of the Future in Dubai, together with his COO, Ertan Yetisener. We discussed the Museum of the Future and its efforts to create a new type of museum. We covered many elements, for instance, the exhibits it is developing, its choice of vendors for consulting and its exhibit design. It also has plans for a 10,000 square foot children’s section which it promises will be unlike any children’s museum out there.
Finally, my takeaway from ECSITE 2019 was encouraging and inspiring. In short, this community is really pushing the boundaries. This community of science museum professionals, in addition to its new generation of leaders, aims to make science centres more relevant. Its goal is to facilitate actions and also to be a positive force for the future.
The success of ECSITE 2019 is due in large part to Kim Gladstone Herlev, CEO, Sheena Laursen, Programme Manager of International Relations and Learning, and the rest of the Experimentarium Science Center team.