Creating exhibitions about cutting-edge science is a hard task for museums. We want to share the latest mind-blowing scientific discoveries and innovations with everyone who comes through our doors, but keeping things up-to-date isn’t always easy.
Science moves fast but museums, by their nature, adopt a slower pace. Much of what we do best is to present world-changing ideas and inventions, often from a distant past when scientific instruments were beautifully crafted in mahogany and brass.
When it comes to contemporary science, museums such as ours have to make an educated guess on the most significant stories to tell and objects to put on show. How can exhibits be kept up to date for many years as scientific knowledge advances and public attitudes change?
In the past week many of these questions and challenges have been playing on my mind, following a lively discussion on social media about an exhibit on the science of sex and gender in our Who Am I? gallery, which explores the wealth of scientific ideas that inform our understanding of human identity.
I worked on Who Am I? when it was last refreshed back in 2010 and the aim at the time was to present the cutting-edge scientific knowledge of the day on what makes us us, me me and you you. I headed up a team of researchers (we call them Content Developers) who spent many months scouring scientific journals and interviewing countless inspiring researchers from around the world. We also worked with a vast network of eminent geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists and other experts to create the gallery.
Scientific accuracy is vital to the Museum – our reputation depends on it – and we put in place rigorous processes to ensure we get things right, from expert advisory boards who look at the broad messages in an exhibition, to subject specialists who are invited to scrutinise every word we write.
It is now six years since Who am I? was updated – and much of the research featured in the gallery is a decade older. The exhibit in the gallery that has recently received attention on Twitter is titled Boy or Girl? It features stories, objects and research including studies into sexual preference and behaviour, tests to see the sex of an unborn baby, and a section looking at gender identity and the evidence for biological differences between the sexes.
The thinking behind Who am I? – and the sex and gender display in particular – was to communicate the latest research clearly and accurately, but we also believe that featuring contributions from other viewpoints and disciplines is essential when examining a question as complex and profoundly personal as ‘who am I?’.
With this in mind, we chose to include work from numerous artists (including, most famously, Antony Gormley’s Iron Baby) and stories from a range of people who are personally involved in the issues covered. In the sections of Who am I? that examine gender and sex, for instance, we collaborated with a transgender person – ‘Alex’ – whose experiences feature in one of the gallery exhibits.
Some of the comments we have received question the accuracy of the science in the exhibition – and the words and images we chose to explain it. Words such as ‘hardwired’, for instance, which feature on several labels, are today especially and understandably controversial when used in combination with ideas like gender.
Other concerns have been raised about an interactive game in the gallery that explores the male and female brain. Specifically, the game presents studies scientists have carried out to investigate if there are small differences on average in the way that men and women complete certain tasks, largely based around the recognition of abstract shapes and patterns. This game – which dates back 16 years to the gallery’s inception – was designed to be tongue in cheek and provocative (think silly voices akin to a Pathé news reel) and visitors are invited to take some of the real tests that scientists used, scoring male or female ‘brain points’ on a ‘sex-o-meter’ that is coloured pink and blue.
As a Museum we always attempt to present ideas in different ways – labels and objects but also games, animations and ‘interactives’ – and in this case the artistic licence taken in the year 2000 to create a provocative exhibit appears outdated. Certainly from preliminary work looking at the latest scientific evidence, the ideas presented are now in question.
Social attitudes also change. We have received responses from visitors who are concerned about how we feature transgender issues, which are now very much more in the public consciousness than they were back in 2010, let alone the year 2000.
The idea of Who am I? was always to raise questions. We present issues in ways that provoke debate, however we would never want to compromise the accuracy of the content on display.
Of course we would like to keep all of our galleries and exhibitions up-to-date, but with many thousands of objects on show and finite resources and time this is not always possible.
However, with an issue of such scientific and cultural importance as this we have decided it is essential that we look again at the exhibit. We are now talking to leading experts in neuroscience and clinical psychology to consider whether the latest scientific evidence warrants making changes to our exhibit.
Science moves fast, and while it isn’t always possible for us to keep up, on some issues it is essential that we quicken our pace to make sure we haven’t been left behind.
Watch this space for further details.
Update: Following a review of current scientific research and discussions with several neuroscientists, the interactive game has now been removed from the Who Am I? gallery.