Smithsonian expert offers tips how to make people appreciate museums

The Inbox

By Mikha Flores, VERA Files

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of the Philippines

In a country where majority of the people are more concerned with economic survival, how to interest them to visit museums is a challenge.

Dr. Nancy Knowlton, a marine scientist and a high-ranking executive at The Smithsonian, said in a lecture at the National Museum Wednesday that understanding the audience is the first step to make people appreciate the beauty of museums.

“I think the most important phase that we (should) try to establish…is who (is) our audience,” she said.

According to Knowlton, there are three kinds of people who visit museums: the “turn-me-on” or wow crowd, the “tell-me-more” people or information seekers, and the “how-can-I help” people or servers of the planet groups.

The challenge, Knowlton said, is to bring people from the wow factor to a deeper engagement with museum exhibits. She said the challenge is to let people care about floras and faunas once they appreciate nature through museums.

She said museum work has a lot of room for creativity citing as example the hyperbolic crochet coral reef project. Founded by the Institute for Figuring, the project mixes both art and science where participants create “coral reefs” through crocheting. Knowlton said the project helped the public understand the threats of global warming to coral reefs.

Museums can also be engaging to the public through “online and onsite crowd curation” where the public can vote which photos or materials to use for a museum exhibit. Knowlton said crowd curation helps create a dialogue between the public and experts instead of just monologues on the part of museum curators and administrators.

Knowlton is currently the Sant Chair in Marine Science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. She holds a PhD at the University of California at Berkeley and graduated summa cum laude at Harvard University for her Bachelor’s degree.

The Smithsonian, the largest museum and research complex in the world, consists of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities.

Dr. Arvin Diesmos of the Philippine National Museum shared insights about how Filipinos relate science and museums to their daily life. He said there still a long way to go to make the public appreciate science and its relevance to their life.

Knowlton said it’s the same in the United States. “You have to lure people into appreciating science by starting with topics …that appeal to them from the other aspects of their lives.”

To effectively connect with the people, she advised the scientists to avoid using scientific terms and instead speak the language they understand. and not dazzle them with scientific terms.

Maribel Garcia, curator of Mind Museum, shared their experience how they dealt with the language problem with their scientists. In the beginning, she said the scientists in her staff “were caged in jargon.”

She let them undergo theater training and now, they are able to explain interestingly science and how it impacts on people’s daily lives.

Garcia said they remind the audience that it’s not just about studying science. It’s also doing something about the destruction of our environment.

She said there is a need to stress to the public that that if we don’t do anything about environmental problems, our stories about the world we live in would be vastly different from the stories of the world our forefathers knew.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true”.)