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A question of sex, gender and how to keep museums up to date

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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?

 

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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.

 

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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.

Written by Alex Tyrrell

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  1. Sue Veneer

    How about speaking to gender critical feminists too? Feminists debunked the archaic and damaging notion of ‘female’ and ‘male’ brains decades ago and yet you are resurrecting these ideas as if proved scientifically, which, of course, they aren’t. If I may remind you, it was the idea of ‘female’ brains that kept women from certain career paths (including science), from political, legal and bodily autonomy. Women who stepped outside of proscribed sex role stereotypes (which you call gender) were often severely punished including being committed to asylums. Please reconsider your uncritical approach to gender identity.

    1. Alex Tyrrell

      Some of the ideas in this part of the gallery were developed up to two decades ago and we recognise that the research and discussion has moved on considerably since then. We are working with scientists to explore the latest research and will be making revisions to the exhibits to address this.

  2. Natasha Read

    Hi,

    I’m a bit confused as to why you say this exhibit was last refreshed in 2010?
    It is clear that Gendered Intelligence contributed in early 2014. (http://genderedintelligence.co.uk/projects/project-list)
    And it’s also clear from the items on display and the text that much, if not all, of their contribution remains.

    1. Alex Tyrrell

      In 2014 we worked with Gendered Intelligence to explore ideas around gender. We worked with a group of young trans people to create an exhibit within the gallery, called ‘What makes your gender?’, that featured both objects and personal stories. This exhibit is temporary and changes two or three times each year. What makes your gender? was replaced in 2014 with an exhibit about the latest HIV research surrounding treatment, and then by another exhibit about the life, death and DNA of King Richard III. The next exhibit will explore the latest research on genome editing and goes on display in the next few weeks.

      1. Natasha Read

        The packers (rubber penises sold to girls as young as 5 who “identify” as boys) and binders,first used as part of the display put in by gendered intelligence, were still there a few weeks ago. (As well as a load of other dodgy text implying hardwired gender)
        You are making out that these items are no longer there!?
        Can you please confirm if these items are still present? And if they were removed, when?
        And can ypu apologise for incorrectly stating that this exhibition was last refreshed in 2010?
        Thanks

        1. Alex Tyrrell

          The exhibit I think you are referring to is called Boy or Girl? In this exhibit, we tell the story of an individual who identifies as transgender called ‘Alex.’ The exhibit includes a packer and chest binder alongside personal testimony from Alex. This exhibit was not created with Gendered Intelligence and has been on display since 2000. We are reviewing this exhibit (as mentioned in the my blog) and are consulting with the scientific community to ensure we feature balanced and accurate content.

          We created a more recent temporary display with Gendered Intelligence elsewhere in the gallery in 2014 but this has since been replaced.

  3. Kelly

    This gives the impression that the display has remained largely untouched for 6 years, however I have seen evidence that some updates were launched in February 2014 by a group of young people who are not necessarily scientists. Can you confirm? Of course if this is the case, it’s no surprise that staying up to date with current science is challenging for the museum as the people funded to update the displays are not actually scientists.

    1. Alex Tyrrell

      Although the majority of the gallery has been untouched for 6 years, a small section of it (in a separate and different location) is updated approximately three times each year with a temporary exhibit. These updates explore recent biomedical science research stories, from genetic screening to the over-use of antibiotics. In 2014 we worked with Gendered Intelligence and a group of young trans people on one temporary exhibit, called ‘What makes your gender?’, which explored ideas around gender and featured both objects and personal stories.

      After a few months we replace each temporary exhibit with a new exhibit. The next exhibit in the gallery will explore the latest research on genome editing and goes on display in the next few weeks.

      1. Natasha Read

        The bit that you mention as being in a different place and so try to imply is not relevant to your original post is the exact bit that many of us have been complaining about
        It is odd to defend against complaints by saying that areas not complained about have not been updated since 2010

  4. Tracy Allard

    The very idea that the museum confused “gender” as an identity with the biology of male and female reproduction is beyond me. There has never been any solid science behind female brain behaviours and male brain behaviours being “hardwired”. Society and culture control this, not biology. Museums delve in both science and culture, the difference needs to be made clear. It’s the same with race, yes, there have been a couple of over cited racist biologists through the years, that never made them correct. The few scientists pushing “lady brains” and “boy brains” are sexist, in the same way that scientists pushing for “lower IQ potential black brains” and “higher IQ potential Asian or Aryan brains” were racists.
    As we are born, our brains represent only potential, other than a very few diseases, nothing is hardwired.

    1. Alex Tyrrell

      Some of the ideas in this part of the gallery were developed up to two decades ago and we recognise that this content and how we present it needs to be revised because the science has moved on, along with the way that we use concepts such as ‘gender’. We are working with scientists to explore the latest research and will be making revisions to the exhibits to address this. The debate around gender continues, including in this recent programme on BBC Horizon.

  5. Frank Ch. Eigler

    Kudos on your emphasis on scientific accuracy. Societal fashions come and go, but what is felt must not overrule what is known.

  6. Jen

    This is not just a question of science, but a question of social responsibility. Promoting regressive, sexist ideas about girls and boys, men and women is destructive. It deeply trouble me to think of all the little girls that came through that exhibit and the message that it sent to them about their capabilities and potential.

    1. Alex Tyrrell

      We agree that the interactive quiz What sex is your brain? includes ideas that are outdated. It was developed based on understanding and advice that dates back to the 1990s. We are in the process of working with experts to review it at the moment.

  7. Helen Saxby

    Blaming the problem on the difficulty of keeping up to date is disingenuous when most of the complaints are to do with the most recent attempt to keep up to date. The updating of the exhibit by Gendered Intelligence in 2014 is the worst of the unscientific information displayed because of the potential damage it may do to young people. You do not address this.

    1. Alex Tyrrell

      In 2014 we worked with Gendered Intelligence to explore ideas around gender. We worked with a group of young trans people to create a temporary exhibit that featured both objects and personal stories under the title ‘What makes your gender?’. As this was part of an ongoing series of temporary exhibits, the exhibit was replaced after a few months with a display about the latest HIV research.

  8. Zoe

    We love what you. We recognise and understand the great efforts of such amazing places as science museums.
    I think with limited resources and funding cuts, what is achieved is generally awe inspiring and amazing. It is true that you can’t please ALL people all of the time.
    Never give up 🚀

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