Controversial Exhibits at St. Louis Science Center

15 Mar

St. Louis magazine’s “Look/Listen” blog has an interesting post about two controversial exhibits at the St. Louis Science Center. The exhibits focus on evolution and climate change and the post discusses how the museum dealt with the challenges of mounting exhibits on controversial topics. Although science museums face different challenges than history museums, do you see any similarities between the two in how they approach controversial topics? What role do academics play in each museum? Could history museums learn something from science museums or vice versa when it comes to approaching difficult or controversial exhibits?


2 Responses to “Controversial Exhibits at St. Louis Science Center”

  1. Christina C March 21, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    I think there are many similarities between history and science museums when it comes to presenting controversial material. For one, both types of institutions present an overall feeling of authority which can often polarize visitors as soon as they see the title of an exhibit. For example, as soon as some visitors see an exhibit called “Climate Change” they reject it or accept it outright based on their previous beliefs. Similarly, visitors may find an exhibit on immigration at a history museum to be equally polarizing.

    However, I think one major difference between history and science museums is that history museums (in my experience) tend to shy away from controversial exhibits, perhaps because they fear low visitor numbers or other types of backlash from important constituencies.

    I do work in the Research and Evaluation department at the Science Center, and saw many negative comment cards on the Darwin exhibit, although there were certainly many more positive comments than negative. Both of these exhibits were/are also free which encourages visitors who may not wish to pay for a controversial exhibit to see them.

  2. Becky Johnston March 22, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    I agree with Christina. Adding a controversial idea to an exhibit should encourage thought outside the norms. Perhaps a disclaimer could be added: Thoughts in process, enter with an open mind. I brought this idea up in my museum review of Cahokia Mounds. When the visitor enters the gallery, one of the first displays is explaining how the region was first populated. The explanations sticks soley to the most popular theory of Beringia or the Being Land Bridge crossing from Asia. But there is another equally interesting theory called the Solutrean Hypothesis. This hypothesis states that a group of people call Solutrean followed migrating seals and other such animals across ice flows until they reached North America. This is based on the numerous similarities between Solutrean and Clovis lithics. If anything, this theory represents a critical thinking exercise in explanation of human migration. Besides the lack of definitive evidence, the proposed Solutrean migration is entirely plausible. If there was no migration from this direction, why not? This critical thinking applies to the climate change exhibit as well. If human activites have not affected the earth’s climate, is something else, or can human activities affect global climate? Controversial topics should not be ignored because people might not agree with them, but explored because, though they may contain ill-conceived ideas, these concepts could inspire better ideas and more questions.

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